Saturday, June 02, 2012

Science and Morality

I have previously opined that disputes in economics are often more about morality than evidence. Those attracted to purely free market economics usually seem to be motivated more by fear of government than by evidence of efficiency. Conversely, those who argue for more government intervention, like Krugman, are motivated to a significant extent by belief in the immorality of certain government actions or in-actions.

It wasn't previously obvious to me, but a recent fit of hysteria by one of my anti-government acquaintances made it clear to me that the same is true for many seemingly value-free scientific disputes. A bishop feared to look through Galileo's telescope, because he feared that what he saw might shake his faith, and Galileo was imprisoned for the content of his physics. Bruno and many others suffered far worse fates.

Even today, social conservatives continue to wage a fierce battle against evolution not because they know (or care) anything about the evidence, but because they fear, quite correctly, that evolution undermines faith. Communists had a similar beef with Darwin, for a very similar reason, his ideas undermined their official Marxist dogma. Leftists in the seventies, and perhaps still, wage a similar battle against evolutionary psychology and studies of links between IQ and other traits (especially race). In every case, the core motive is the same - scientific discoveries have the potential to undermine dogma.

So it is with global warming. Environmentalists have been quick to associate the movement against global warming science with special interests like Exxon Mobile and the coal industry, and that association is perfectly valid, but that's not the fire that burns in the hearts of the true (dis)believers. Their religion is fear of the governmental and super-governmental authorities needed to implement realistic action to prevent human caused climate change. Once again science is up against fundamental moral instincts.

One of the most obvious evidences is the puny quality of the arguments advanced against anthropogenic global warming. One day it's some obscure statistical critique of one minor data point, the next it's a fanciful theory of cosmic rays or an obviously nonsensical argument based on the height of the troposphere. For a scientist, internal coherence of your ideas is crucial. The moralist on the defensive picks up any stick, club or fluffy throw pillow that comes to mind.