Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Limits of Science

A couple of somewhat-related items have crossed my path today. They deal with an old favorite topic of this group, on which we have had some highly profitable discussions in the past. My own views on this issue have been significantly modified by discussions on this blog.

First, via Pharyngula via Panda's Thumb, I was made aware of a Senate resolution in Tennessee sponsored by Senator Raymond Finney. The full text of the resolution is fascinating, but it basically asks a question of the state department of education: "Is the Universe ... created through purposeful, intelligent design ...?" If yes, it asks, then why aren't we teaching that in our schools? If maybe, it asks, then why aren't we teaching the possibility as an alternative theory of origins in our schools? If not, then... well, at that point the resolution just gets snarky.

I'm going to answer this question under the presumption that "maybe" is the expected answer. Science is not in the business of disproving God, and science educators are not (or should not be) in the business of rejecting the existence of an intelligent designer... so, it comes back as a maybe. Here's where the Tennessee resolution gets on really shaky ground, in my opinion.

If the answer to Question 1 is "This question cannot be proved or disproved," please answer Question 3:

(3) Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is created by a Supreme Being (a Creator), why is creationism not taught as an alternative concept, explanation, or theory, along with the theory of evolution in Tennessee public schools?

The absurdity of this statement can most easily be demonstrated by replacing the reference to the Creator with nearly anything else: "Since it cannot be determined whether the Universe, including human beings, is the illegitimate offspring of aliens from Mars and Jupiter, why is that theory not taught...." You get the idea.

For intelligent design to deserve to be taught in science classrooms, it has to do much more than demonstrate that it can't be proved wrong. It has to pass a more rigorous test than theoretical possibility. Rather we need to ask if there is reason, from science, to consider the existence of an intelligent designer probable or likely. To the extent that science is able to speak to that question, it would be appropriate to include the information in a science classroom... beyond that, it would be highly inappropriate.

I would also add one very important point, where the Tennessee resolution goes very wrong. It may be possible for science to recognize that naturalism (which is as far as science can see) is insufficient for providing reasonable explanations of certain phenomena. It is possible for naturalistic science to say: "Based on what we can see now, the most likely explanation for what we see here is something outside of naturalistic science". However, there is no way that science can possibly do anything to guess at, label, or identify any characteristics of what would be outside of its naturalistic sphere of limitations. Finney's resolution, on the other hand, asks the department of education to rule on the existence of "a Supreme Being, that is a Creator". Describing this "Being" in the singular is something science could never purport to know. Describing this outside-of-nature something as a "Being", even, is beyond the ability of science. Describing it as "Supreme", or as worthy of Capital Letters in being named, is well into the realm of religion/philosophy, and out of the realm of naturalistic science.

Considering for a moment my limited possibility... do you believe that it is valid for science to say "Based on what we currently know, the most likely explanation for {something observed} is located outside of naturalistic science"? Is science ever able to say that it is most likely out of its element? Or should science simply stick to the best naturalistic explanation it can offer, however flawed and limited that explanation is? If science should be allowed to recognize that certain things are most plausibly explained by something outside its naturalistic sphere, would such an admission ever be appropriate in a science classroom?

On the other end of the spectrum from the Senator Finneys of the world are the Richard Dawkins' of the world. Now, don't get me wrong... I don't know Senator Finney, but from the little I've seen of the two of them I wouldn't consider Finney to be academically equivalent to Dawkins. However, in their view of the interaction between science and the supernatural, they serve as useful comparison points for discussion. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, believes not only that science is incapable of affirming the existence of a Creator, but that belief in a Creator is scientifically irrational. I haven't read any of his books, but he is certainly a popular and influential writer and speaker, proclaiming any form of religion or belief in anything beyond naturalism to be irrational, silly, even despicable.

Today, via The Fire and the Rose, I came across a response to Dawkins' latest book (and his views in general) by philosopher Alvin Plantinga. I found Plantinga's arguments for the most part convincing, though as I said I haven't read Dawkins' books to compare against.

One part in particular interested me, and relates to the earlier part of this discussion. Quoting Plantinga:

Starting in the late Sixties and early Seventies, astrophysicists and others noted that several of the basic physical constants must fall within very narrow limits if there is to be the development of intelligent life—at any rate in a way anything like the way in which we think it actually happened. For example, if the force of gravity were even slightly stronger, all stars would be blue giants; if even slightly weaker, all would be red dwarfs; in neither case could life have developed. The same goes for the weak and strong nuclear forces; if either had been even slightly different, life, at any rate life of the sort we have, could probably not have developed. Equally interesting in this connection is the so-called flatness problem: the existence of life also seems to depend very delicately upon the rate at which the universe is expanding. Thus Stephen Hawking:

reduction of the rate of expansion by one part in 1012 at the time when the temperature of the Universe was 1010 K would have resulted in the Universe's starting to recollapse when its radius was only 1/3000 of the present value and the temperature was still 10,000 K.

That would be much too warm for comfort. Hawking concludes that life is possible only because the universe is expanding at just the rate required to avoid recollapse. At an earlier time, he observes, the fine-tuning had to be even more remarkable:

we know that there has to have been a very close balance between the competing effect of explosive expansion and gravitational contraction which, at the very earliest epoch about which we can even pretend to speak (called the Planck time, 10-43 sec. after the big bang), would have corresponded to the incredible degree of accuracy represented by a deviation in their ratio from unity by only one part in 10 to the sixtieth.

One reaction to these apparent enormous coincidences is to see them as substantiating the theistic claim that the universe has been created by a personal God and as offering the material for a properly restrained theistic argument...

Plantinga goes on to point out Dawkins' response to this evidence. Dawkins, according to Plantinga, hypothesizes the existence of many universes, maybe even infinite universes, enough that the likelihood of one having a compatible set of constants becomes acceptable... which universe would also then develop complex life as we know it. We would be able to recognize and evaluate the unlikely chain of events because we were at the end of it, but the multitude of other universes that did not result in us would be beyond our vision. They would be necessary for us to believe in their existence to explain the otherwise unexplainable practical-impossibility of the universe being perfectly tuned to support life.

Now, it need hardly be mentioned that Dawkins' hypothesis here is nothing close to science. It is not testable, not verifiable, and must be taken on faith just as much as any other religious point of view. I would definitely say that "intelligent design" is just as valid an explanation for the unlikeliness of the precise tuning of the universal constants as "hypothetical multiple universes". I see no reason that the latter should be allowable in a science classroom, if the former should not be.

[For completeness, let me link to an extensive response to this argument for design found here, later updated by the author here. Basically, he lays out alternate explanations (much as Plantinga cites Dawkins doing), and says that these explanations are "at least as good or better" then the non-naturalistic explanations. I can only presume that they are better in his estimation because they are naturalistic. They certainly don't have any better claim to evidential support. He then states that the intelligent design possibility can be disregarded because other equivalent options are available, an argument which seems peculiar to me.]

But, what should a science teacher say when a student asks the honest question, "How did all those universal constants line up so perfectly?" Should the science teacher say, "Science has no good answer for that question; look elsewhere"? Should the science teacher suggest (with careful qualification) various prominent explanations even if they are beyond the strict naturalistic realms of science? Or should the science teacher say, "The best naturalistic explanation is that chance brought these factors together; though it is unthinkably implausible, it is possible, and that's the best scientific answer"?

Let me quickly recap and summarize my thoughts and questions...

* Science cannot speak to specifics outside of the naturalistic realm. This is an important observation that places limits on how we can discuss these things, and particularly how we can address non-naturalistic subjects in science classrooms.

* Science may be right to recognize that in some situations, the best explanation available is one that is not available to science because it is outside the naturalistic realm. I am curious what others think about the propriety of science pointing outside itself for answers (even as it can't clarify the specifics).

* When science does not provide useful answers, but extra-scientific disciplines can provide useful answers, how should the science teacher interact with those issues from a scientific perspective?

I'd love to know what you think.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Health Care: What's the Current State?

A couple weeks ago I posted my thoughts on a discussion of the minimum goals for universal health care from a progressive perspective. I'm hoping to maintain this discussion over the next few months, as various proposals are suggested (and tried, in Massachusetts and California) for solving this problem at the state and federal level.

To understand what needs to be fixed about healthcare, though, we need to understand why the current system is broken. There are some obvious things.

* Some people are uninsured. This has negative implications for them, of course, but it also has negative implications for the rest of us, because emergency rooms are the only part of the health care system that we require to provide care no questions asked... so the uninsured among us end up frequenting the most expensive care facility option. It seems that it would be clearly good all around for everyone to be insured... but, of course, that not-insignificant money would have to come from somewhere.

As an interesting side-note, the state of Oregon is currently considering a significant tax hike on cigarettes, to provide health coverage for all uninsured children in Oregon (or, more specifically, all children of families under a certain income level). Vice taxes are always an interesting approach, though not particularly sustainable (part of the motive of the tax is to move toward eliminating smoking, thereby eliminating the tax revenues!), and certainly not scalable to be an effective overall solution.

* Many people that are insured struggle to pay for their insurance, and for the part of their care that they are responsible for beyond their insurance coverage.

This is the larger problem in our system, I think, and one that is little talked about. My health insurance has a lifetime maximum coverage amount of one million dollars. That seems like a lot... but with health costs as they are, any major ongoing hospital care could reach one million dollars in relatively short order. Because of the employer-based system, I have no option to compare plans or select a different company... I either have the plan my company provides, or I pay for an individual plan out of my pocket at exorbitant rates. What happens if my daughter, who has special health needs, develops serious complications and hits her coverage maximum? I have to change jobs to get a different insurance plan? Move to a different state?

My plan also has a $1000 per person deductible per year. That means that (excepting office visits) the first $1000 of health expenses each year for each member of my family has to come out of pocket. Again, I have no option to let that plan compete on the market and see if something better is available... I have to take it or leave it. I can afford it, and am grateful for the safety net my coverage provides... but there are many people for whom the out-of-pocket amounts they have to pay are a very real burden.

* Others? What would you add to this list? What other problems do you think exist in our current health care system?

Of course, we should also look at what is particularly good about our health care system. I think there are some important things here to keep in mind, things that we definitely would not want to lose in our reforms.

* Options, Competition, and Freedom. In general, Americans have a great deal of choice in what health care they receive and how they receive it. My current insurance plan allows me to visit specialists directly without a referral, for example. A previous HMO plan I was on required a visit (or call) to my primary care provider before being allowed to see the specialist, but the doctor was willing to give me a referral to just about any specialist I felt a need to see. For each of our babies, we were able to choose from a variety of prenatal care providers, and even hospitals. We chose options out of the mainstream, but our insurance covered those nonstandard options without blinking an eye.

Even where insurance doesn't cover a service, it is still available. My daughter has allergy issues that require nearly all her medications to be compounded (given in raw form, without the inactive ingredients, colorings and flavorings and the like, that she is allergic to). Insurance, for some reason, doesn't cover compounded medicines. It doesn't matter that she requires them for medical reasons; because the state laws and regulations allow them to exclude coverage of those prescriptions, and because so few people need that particular benefit, they (and probably all other insurance providers in this state) exclude it to save on whatever costs they can. Yet, we can still get her prescriptions compounded, and even have a selection of pharmacies in the area that will do it for us, and compete for price. We have to pay out of pocket, but the prices are quite reasonable because of the competition.

There are endless examples of situations where we exercise our freedom to find medical care options that are unique to our needs and desires. There are also numerous ways that competition within the health care field improves our care and lowers our costs. Any plan that severely limits to does away with those features, I think would be unacceptable.

What else would you list as particularly good aspects of our current health care system that you would not want to see lost in a comprehensive reform?


Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Universal Health Care

Health care seems to be on everyone's minds right now, and it will clearly be a top issue in the presidential elections next year. President Bush recently came out with a proposal to increase access to healthcare and lower expenses through a system of tax breaks. Wal-Mart went on the record yesterday, with various labor unions, setting a goal of universal health insurance coverage by 2012. Massachusetts and California have now instituted state-wide plans to provide universal coverage (though the Massachusetts plan is having problems, and the California plan is still in the formative stages). Many other states, like my own state of Washington, are pushing for similar legislation.

Back in 2005, I started a discussion on my Xanga blog about entitlements, primarily universal healthcare. I also posted my thoughts on the Massachusetts plan in April 2006.

On Monday, I came across a post on the John Edwards '08 blog touting Edwards' health care proposal. He claimed the support of "the blog world's health care policy expert", Ezra Klein (I've never heard of him, but that's no surprise). Following the link to Ezra Klein's writings led to a very thought-provoking discussion about universal health care on the American Prospect website.

The discussion aims to answer the question: "When it comes to comprehensive health care, what are progressives' core demands?" So, it is explicitly from a progressive-liberal point of view. But, because it is a discussion of "core demands", the discussion is one that all of us can relate to in some way.

Ezra Klein starts it off by laying out four non-negotiables:
* An End to Employer-Based Healthcare. He doesn't specify alternatives, but presumably publicly-funded insurance, tax breaks for individuals for private healthcare, and other systems would be options for him.
* Insurance that Insures. Meaning insurance that has to insure anyone without discrimination. Klein suggests regulation to force the insurance industry to set rates for whole communities as a group, and to accept anybody who applies for insurance.
* Progressive Universality. Everyone should be able to be insured. Everyone should be required to purchase insurance. Insurance costs must not be an unreasonable burden on anybody.
* Scalability. Basically, Klein is saying that whatever we accept now should be able to transition into a full-blown government-mandated income-redistributing social insurance policy in the near future without too much hassle.

Next, Merrill Goozner adds his thoughts to the discussion. He agrees with Klein that insurance must be universal and mandated. However, he disagrees with Klein about the possibility of a good compromise between employer-funded insurance and a full-blown government-run healthcare system. He points out that employer-paid insurance provides income redistribution on a small scale (because all employees pay the same for their insurance, regardless of their income level), a state which would not be likely to carry over to a private-coverage, tax-break system. That's an interesting observation I hadn't considered. Goozner's prescription is to simply go whole-hog to a government-run health system, and accept no substitutes.

He also suggests mandating some amount of spending on "preventive care and public health campaigns" as a way of "effectively controlling costs". I don't think we can count on such basic measures to realistically provide much of the significant cost-control that is going to be necessary. He also says that "[w]e should demand that the health care system stop draining the rest of the economy." I'm not sure, thought, how he proposes to make that happen. His third point, Quality, is the most confusing to me. He advocates offering everyone "high quality care that is the best that medical science has to offer", but says that "[w]hat it doesn't mean is offering everyone Cadillac care", meaning care options that are overly expensive for the benefit they provide. Of course, the huge question of who (presumably some government agency in a government-run system) would make such weighty decisions is left unanswered.

Jonathan Cohn joins the discussion next. He believes that some version of an employer-based system could be workable as part of a universal healthcare solution. He also adds one significant item that Klein didn't mention, and that Goozner glazed over... cost control. However, he doesn't have any substantive recommendations on that very important aspect of the discussion.

Maggie Mahar is the last participant (for now, at least). She focuses straight in on the cost-control side of the question, and frames the issue in terms of sustainability:

Today we need to launch a public debate that tackles a very sensitive question: how do we create a sustainable health care system that offers high-quality, necessary care to all Americans?

Ezra's proposal focuses on the second half of the equation -- universal coverage -- and, on that score, I agree with virtually all of his points. But I would add that we can't talk about covering the uninsured without addressing the next question: How do we pay for quality care, this year, next year, and the year after? How do we create a sustainable system?

Mahar goes on to face the cost issue head-on. She suggests that the source of the problem is in the nature of how we consume health products.
The health care industry is different from other industries because consumers rarely put a lid on pricing -- even if they have "skin" in the game. Everyone is ready to pay more for the newest medical technology because we have been trained to believe that the newest is best. And when it comes to preventing disease, who wants anything less?
She elaborates on this theme in great detail, and (in my opinion) convincingly. She finishes her thought by arguing that if we could cut out the wasteful use of healthcare that has become prominent in our society, that funding universal healthcare would no longer be an issue.

I agree with most of the goals laid out by these authors. I am not optimistic, though, that any effective solutions will be as readily available as they have proposed.

I agree with the authors above that everyone should have a health safety net. I'm not sure I agree with them about specifically what that means, or how much would be included in that safety net.

I am pretty well convinced by this point that, for an insurance system to function, there must be mandatory buy-in. This system will, of necessity, be some form of income redistribution system. Mandatory buy-in is a more free-market way of doing that redistribution than taxation, and I tend strongly toward support of free-market solutions.

I can see the flaws in an employer-run system, but I can also see that it might be the most workable solution, so I am ambivalent on that point (for now).

I am not interested in Klein's view of "scalability", since I am not convinced as he is that full-out government-run health care is the best end result. In fact, I have a strong suspicion it would not be a good way for this process to end. So, while he is willing to aim for a potentially interim transitional phase, I am much more interested in finding a solution that is, as Mahar put it, sustainable, and intended to be sustained.

I agree with Mahar that the cost issue is unavoidable, and is a key to solving our healthcare problems. I'm not sure exactly how to approach the cost issue, but I think the blame falls very widely, on nearly all the participants in our healthcare system.

I've got much more to think through on this, but this post has gotten long enough. In another post soon I'll go into more detail about the problems I perceive on the cost side of the healthcare system. I'm hoping that the comments here will generate other lines of thought and discussion as well.

So, what are your thoughts? Which of the above writers do you relate to the best, and why? What do you think are the most important goals we should set as we work to rework our health care system? Do you think our health care system even needs to be reworked? What other aspects of the problem should we be considering?


Saturday, February 03, 2007

Can the NFL Really Be This Dumb?

The NFL has long been very protective of the use of the term "Super Bowl" in any commercial environment, if the NFL isn't getting paid for the use. That's why there are so many radio and TV ads talking about "the big game" or the "football championship", without referencing the words "Super Bowl". That's all well and good.

Now, though, it appears that the NFL has made a really bone-headed decision regarding Super Bowl viewing parties. Check out the website of Fall Creek Baptist Church in Indianapolis, which was planning a huge bash to watch their hometown team play. Here's the news they have on their home page currently:

We regret to inform you that we have had to cancel our bash to view the Colts game this Sunday in a family friendly environment due to the fact that the NFL believes we would be in violation of the Copyright Act, because we had planned to show the game on a screen bigger than a 55 inch diagonal. We have appealed to their legal counsel and exhausted all options without success. We have been informed that the only exceptions to view the game are given to sports bars and restaurants. While we have argued that we only intend to provide a family oriented environment that will make no profit from the showing, the NFL claims that our event cannot proceed by law. Therefore, we have no choice but to challenge this in court or cancel the event. We choose to cancel the event. We deeply regret that we have been prohibited by the NFL from providing a family friendly environment for celebrating the Colts great season.
What in the world? Why would the NFL make exceptions for "sports bars and restaurants" but not for churches? If the church sells snacks at the party, does that turn them into a temporary restaurant? Obviously, the NFL decided not.

Does the NFL actually think this is going to help their image with those hundreds, maybe thousands, of church members in Indianapolis? Unbelievable.

According to this article on GetReligion.org, other churches are also ending their Super Bowl viewing parties to accommodate the NFL's restrictions. It will be interesting to see, especially next year, if the NFL sticks to its guns on this. On the other hand, it appears that the largest church-sponsored Super Bowl party in our area (with thousands of attendees every year, free food and games, etc.) is still scheduled to continue. They must not have heard the news.

The most ridiculous statement here is from the NFL, referenced in the Falls Creek Church statement: "the NFL claims that our event cannot proceed by law". Oh, right... the NFL has its hands tied here. It wishes that it could provide an exception for churches, like it provides for bars and restaurants, but the law simply won't allow it. Yeah, whatever.

I predict that either the NFL will quietly rescind this policy very soon (maybe before this Super Bowl, if they have any sense, but at least before the next one)... or else this is going to be a big black eye for them come next year.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Election Reform, Part 3

Democracy isn't working in America. The democratic process should theoretically result in an elected government that a majority of the population is content with most of the time. It may not be the first choice of the majority, but it should at least be acceptable in most cases.
What we have instead is a government that the majority of Americans distrust, dislike, and disown. Why is this, and what can be done to fix it?

In the first part of this series (developed in the comments to these posts), I suggested a change to our method of voting. I feel that our "pick one" system leads many people to be too easily swayed by media pressure to vote for a prominent candidate they don't trust or like, so as to be voting against a candidate that dislike and distrust even more. I described some potential options that could change that situation, allowing voters to express their true preferences (thereby building momentum) while also protecting their vote against supporting a strongly-disliked candidate.

In the second part, I examined the dilemma we as voters face in evaluating candidates. We have only the information that we are presented through carefully-scripted speeches and debates, through polemic and exaggerated TV ads, and through highly over-simplified position statements. It is nearly impossible to evaluate a candidate's real abilities as a leader with such limited, skewed, and filtered information. Many things have been suggested on this score, but I added to the list a suggestion for a knowledge test, to give us an objective way of figuring out how much various candidates know about the situations they will be responsible for if they become leaders.

In this third part, I will look briefly at the two-party system, and make a suggestion (however unlikely it is to be actualized) about what could be done to improve our ability to be accurately represented in our government.

My thoughts were led this way by a post on Mark Byron's blog shortly after the November 2006 elections. He points out that, based on voting patterns, the majority of our national legislature is either strongly conservative or strongly liberal. As Mark puts it, "I don't think the population of the country is that polarized".

One of the reasons this happens is because of the two-party primary-election/general-election system. My first suggestion in this series, changing the method of voting, could have a major effect here. But, I also suggest the creation of another party.

Now, of course, there are other parties. The three main competitors are the Constitution party, the Green party, and the Libertarian party. The Constitution party is more strongly conservative than the Republicans; the Green party is more strongly liberal than the Democrats. So, neither of those is going to reflect the views of the politically-moderate American. The Libertarian party is an odd breed, ultra-conservative in certain areas and ultra-liberal in others, driven by an underlying philosophy that is so hard to live out fully that most of its proponents end up making notable exceptions... but it is still a significant force in American politics.

However, if (as we hear every year) the elections will be decided by the moderate, independent voters... why does that huge voting bloc not have a party of its own? Shouldn't there be a "Moderate" party?

The obvious problem with that plan was expressed by a commenter on Mark Byron's blog:

If one person supports gun control while opposing abortion, and the second opposes gun control and supports abortion, they're both statistically "middle." Good luck getting them into one party, though.

The middle is an ideological mish-mash, so building a party platform that would have any level of buy-in would be impossible.

But... what is a political party other than a group of people who share a particular set of values, and work together to identify a candidate who shares those values to represent them? Is it not possible to identify a shared set of values that would be embraced by the vast majority of politically-in-the-middle Americans? I think so... but the values would not be tied to political ideological positions.

Imagine a party whose platform said nothing about abortion, nothing about economics, nothing about immigration, nothing about homosexual marriage or health care of Social Security. Instead, imagine if it said:

  • We are committed to listening and responding respectfully to those who disagree with us, building consensus, giving and expecting compromise, working for pragmatic solutions for the problems that face us.
  • We are committed to being honest and law-abiding. We will never take gifts from special interest groups, we will never sell a vote either for money or for other considerations. We will never break the laws that we are committing to maintain.
  • We are committed to avoiding the abuse of power. We will avoid all power games, such as selling a vote for one item to get someone else to vote on something else. We will, as children are taught, accept when we cannot get our way, and not use procedural tricks to block the will of the majority. We will not cheat the democratic process by withholding our vote from an otherwise good bill unless unrelated items (which would not pass a vote on their own) are added.

That's a good start, I think. I imagine that's a set of values that the vast majority of moderate independent voters could get behind and committed to. In fact, most of us wish our candidates were committed to those things... but the party leadership, which should be filtering candidates based on what matters to us, is using a very different standard than that outlined above.

So, I suggest we start a party (I can't decide what to call it) with a platform of non-ideological, character-based commitments. The party leadership would have the task of carefully evaluating potential candidates to identify those who have demonstrated a commitment to the party's principles. We would then be able to vote, as a party, for a candidate to represent us in each election, one who we could be certain would be committed to doing politics in a fair, respectful, above-board manner, working within the democratic processes rather than trying to get around them.

Those principles are more important to me than nearly all the political ideological positions. Yet, neither the Democrats or the Republicans are committed to them. Neither the Democratic party leadership or the Republican party leadership is likely to put forward a candidate who is committed to avoiding power politics, which could then weaken the party's overall influence. Both groups clearly put their commitment to power over their respect for democratic principles. In so doing, both groups lose my trust and respect.

There are, of course, many potential problems with my proposal. Maybe, for most people, character issues of this sort are high priorities, but not as high as one or two key ideological positions. Maybe, for most people, power (getting their way in government) is more important than principle and fairness. Maybe most people vote based on who will do the most for them, who will lower their taxes the most or who will increase handouts the most or who will subsidize their business the most or who will get the most government contracts moved to their area... all without concern for how those ends are realized.

But, for my part, I'd join that party in a heartbeat, and I'd probably get more actively involved in politics with a party like that to support than I've been willing to consider with any of the current parties. I think that, if nothing else, the existence of the party would help to raise those principle-based issues in the national consciousness, which couldn't help but be a good thing.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Climate Change Report

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is working on their occasional (every 5 or 6 years) assessment of the nature and impact of climate change on the world. This year, they have adopted very strong language, according to an AP report. The official version of the report is still being finalized, so I can't link to it yet. All I've got so far is the news report from the AP.

That news report has some very fascinating quotes. Here's what stood out to me:

now that world has begun to warm, hotter temperatures and rises in sea level "would continue for centuries" no matter how much humans control their pollution.

Then, later in the article, a quote from Riibeta Abeta, a delegate from Kiribati:

I hope that policymakers will be quite convinced by this message," said Riibeta Abeta, a delegate whose island nation Kiribati is threatened by rising seas. "The purpose is to get them moving."
I might be missing something here... but if the sea level is going to rise for centuries no matter what we do, then what exactly is the motivation for us to "get ... moving", and what exactly are we moving toward? What will be the impact of lowering our emissions, even in the many-centuries-out perspective (as if we could even presume to predict that far)? How far must we lower our emissions to make a difference?

These questions are important, because harmful emissions are not immoral. That might be a weird way of putting it, but I think it's important. Emissions that harm our environment might not be a good idea, and we might want to limit them, but such limits have to be balanced against many other factors. Such balancing considerations are never easy... and when we beginning talking about uncertain gains that will appear at best centuries away, I start to wonder how much we should be willing to sacrifice for such nebulous goals.

Such was roughly the opinion of the Copenhagen Consensus last year, a meeting of economists who took it upon themselves to rank the 10 most pressing global problems by how much benefit would come from expending limited resources toward their resolution. Their conclusion was that, as far as comparative benefit from financial investment goes, global warming was at the bottom of the list. From what I can see, this report from the scientific angle would bear out that conclusion.

However, that conclusion is obviously not what the authors of the report intended to communicate, based on their quotes. What are your thoughts?

I have one other observation, but it's about the AP article itself, not the report. I found this sentence rather amusing:
The panel, created by the United Nations in 1988, releases its assessments every five or six years — although scientists have been observing aspects of climate change since as far back as the 1960s.
Yes, it is true that scientists have been observing "climate change" back that far. It's just that for the first couple decades, they were sounding the alarm about global cooling and the coming ice age, not global warming. I'm pretty young, but I remember having my elementary school teachers impress on us how important it was to stop using aerosol cans because they were going to block out the sun's heat and we were going to be overrun by glaciers.

Considering that nowadays the terms "climate change" and "global warming" are used synonymously, the AP could have been a bit more clear on that point. :)


[UPDATE: The Volokh Conspiracy blog mentions the report, with more links and some interesting discussion in the comments. It also points to two other blogs, which take issue with the particular wording of the report regarding climate change's affect on hurricanes, and how the media has been reporting that angle to the public. Interesting stuff.]