Thursday, March 12, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Applying Science To Social and Political Issues

Many people regard social and political beliefs as strictly subjective, free to be one way or its opposite, with little if any dependence upon objective reality. Morals and ethics are constrained by social mores, but not by scientific limits; compassion does not have a molecular weight, and the flash point of your anger is not measured in degrees. So what is the proper role of science in analysis of social and political issues?

Social and political ideas often can be tested and potentially falsified by consideration of simple laws of physics, mathematics, statistics, and other sciences. If politicians were scientifically literate they could avoid errors contravening science, and if they also were honest, they would avoid such errors. Ultimately, in democracies, the responsibility for electing to office only individuals who are ethical and scientifically literate belongs to those who do the electing: "we, the people." If the wrong people for the job are elected, the fault is ours; as expressed by Pogo, the cartoon ‘possum, “I have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Some examples may clarify the importance of taking personal responsibility to be our own best friend rather than our own worst enemy. Reliance of the developed world on fossil fuels is a major issue, yet wrongheaded politicos seem ignorant of the physics that demands adoption of alternatives to fossil fuel. That is, you can have all the coal and oil you want, but their combustion will damage our atmosphere and ecosystems, and kill millions if not billions of people from disease, drought, and failure of agriculture. So, fossil fuel supply is a tiny part of the problem; developing alternative energy sources is essential for sustainability, whatever your politics.

Oil is being consumed rapidly, yet the roller-coaster prices of oil and oil-derived products tends to be attributed predominantly to fluctuating demand in the developing world, especially China. That is, to many people, politics—not science—is the culprit. Supply-side issues, such as the cost of extracting oil from increasingly great depths and remote locations, or from mixed phases such as oil shales or oil sands, are at least as important as demand, but tend to be ignored by those preferring to externalize responsibility for this economic issue by ignoring its scientific underpinning.

Success at extracting large oil supplies from oil shales and oil sands is not just an economic issue, but an issue of physics and engineering: the price of extracting oil rises with the engineering difficulty, and eventually matches the price of extracting oil from mixed phases such as shales and sands. So, rising oil prices is not purely the bane of which politicians complain, but also the key to developing major new oil supplies.

Many if not most educated people have learned about the greenhouse effect and the concept of our 'carbon footprint', referring to our emissions to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse gases' (popularly measured in ‘carbon dioxide equivalents’) that contribute to a trend of global warming caused by human activities beginning with the Industrial Revolution. Most of us now know that reliance on fossil fuels, including abundant, relatively inexpensive fossil fuels such as coal, is incompatible with sustainability of our planet's ecosystems and services provided to our species and to all other species by those ecosystems.

Alternatives to fossil fuel are known, and they must be developed rapidly because survival of our natural ecosystems, and ultimately our species, is at stake. Rising fossil fuel prices accelerate research into alternative sources of energy, and their development. Despite the benefits of rising fossil fuel prices, many politicians complain, effectively ignoring the message of science: that the rise of sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels depends critically upon the rise of fossil fuel prices. In New York State, for example, Senator Charles ('Chuck') Schumer (in 2007) advocated reduction of the New York State tax on gasoline at service stations, notwithstanding that this proposal, if adopted, would exacerbate the dual problems of oil depletion and global warming rather than reduce them.

In the atmosphere another form of resource depletion likewise poses risks to our survival: ozone depletion. Ozone in the stratosphere protects our planet from ultraviolet solar radiation that causes gene mutations, damages ecosystems, and causes skin cancer in people. Ozone depletion has occurred globally, but atmospheric circulation patterns have made it most apparent seasonally in an 'ozone hole' that is most accentuated over the Earth's poles, especially the north pole. The predominant and undisputed cause is release of long-lived chemicals, primarily chlorofluorocarbons, most notably those that are sold commercially as freons for automobile and home air conditioners. Recognition of the problem has resulted in replacement of freons in air conditioning systems in the U. S. and Europe, but that has created a major black market for existing ‘orphaned’ freons in developing countries, especially in the huge markets of China and India, where freons are being used and released at a rate that has nearly eliminated the benefits of their replacement in U. S. and European markets. Politicians in developing countries must gain foresight, and act with scientific acumen, to avoid the kind of brinkmanship that poses an existential risk for us all. I must emphasize that, though this statement applies today to emerging markets, the antecedents to today's dire reality have resulted from lack of foresight and scientific acumen among politicians right here in the U. S. and in Europe, where regulatory failures have allowed ozone depletion and other environmental problems to progress to their current degree of severity.

In Iraq one form of 'resource' depletion may have produced a positive result that conveniently has not been recognized, or acknowledged, by many if not most of our politicians. In November 2007 Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki noted signs of the "end of sectarian violence" following the fall of Saddam Hussein's cruel government. In Baghdad the incidence of terrorist attacks such as suicide bombings dropped by 77 percent, following introduction of more U. S. troops (a temporary strategy termed a 'surge'). Here too, the message of science differs from the message of politics. The surge of U. S. troops into Baghdad probably exerted a small positive effect proportional to the increase in troop strength. Dramatic reduction in sectarian violence, however, probably is attributable to more important processes. These include talking to less extreme communities to convince them to repudiate violence and, especially, Al Qaeda in Iraq. They also include a simple mathematical process: reduced size of populations targeted for violent retribution due to their desperate and accelerating migration out of neighborhoods where they were increasingly being threatened, tortured, and killed. Those ‘neighborhoods’ now resemble walled fortresses more than residential enclaves. So, a major reason why the attacks decreased appears to be that the number of available targets of such attacks also has decreased as a result of death, departure, and local self-protection unrelated to the surge in troop strength.

This alternative 'resource depletion' explanation belies Prime Minister al-Maliki's hopeful claim that Iraqi extremists are moderating their thinking. Indeed, powerful Shi’a militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr exhorted his armed extremists to lie opportunistically dormant. These words, and simple math, are all that is needed to substantiate the statistical inevitability of the observed reduction of sectarian violence. Whatever the effect of the ‘surge’ has been, other forms of progress have been achieved, relegating the military contribution to little or less than claimed.

A related political issue also can be informed by science. The policy of torturing people to extract information that might help to prevent attacks on U. S. troops and on Iraqis has been defended by former President George Bush and members of his administration based upon its perceived effectiveness. This defense has been assisted by (now former) U. S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez supporting terminology that would define interrogation methods used by the U.S. or by our allies on our behalf as being compatible with the Geneva Convention prohibiting torture. The effectiveness of torture, however, typically has been more apparent than real, as people will say almost anything, true or untrue, in the hope of relieving ongoing torture. This is an objective observation that must be factored into your political and ethical thinking, whatever you ‘feel’ is right.

The issue of torture, of course, is primarily an ethical one. The ethical issue is whether a policy allowing torture should be adopted even if found to be effective. Regarding this issue, American politics likewise has contravened science. America exists as a beacon of hope for less fortunate others in the world, as a country in which torture and less extreme abuses have been repudiated in favor of democratic practices recognizing the value of a diverse population on which our 'melting-pot' society depends, and the rights of each individual and each minority. This concept is expressed most eloquently at the base of the Statue of Liberty: “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

In short, we have adopted in this country a form of order that differs significantly from that in harsh dictatorships such as yesterday’s Iraq or today's North Korea. Yet, the 1st Law of Thermodynamics in physics tells us that achieving any kind of order, including democratic order, requires reduction of disorder (entropy), and entropy increases over time unless energy is expended to reduce it. In politics, that means suppressing disorder internally, and/or exporting it. So, as a general principle, to preserve our democracy we must take measures that are scientifically akin to the measures that any ordered society must take, even a harsh dictatorship: reduction of entropy. Declining to act against forces promoting disorder must result in increasing disorder. That's the message of science.

In our democracy we reduce disorder via more gentle means than in harsh dictatorships, but even democracies must defend themselves by preserving orderliness to within the bounds of acceptable behaviors. When we are threatened from outside our borders, however, we may lack access to the relatively gentle systems that are used successfully to stabilize our democracy from within. This does not mean that we should torture anyone, even if torture is effective, and as a matter of policy I believe that we definitely should not do so. It does mean, however, that we cannot expect to go to Iraq, or anywhere, armed only with democracy, and expect to prevail. In any environment, anywhere in the world, we must adapt to survive.

The message of the Statue of Liberty is being drowned in a macabre theatre of mediocrity by people such as Lou Dobbs of television station CNN who offer simplistic, populist solutions to address the emerging issue of terrorism in the U. S. (see cartoon). Remarkably, CNN's web site acknowledges Lou Dobbs' populism in describing his television show:

"Lou Dobbs… [is] an independent populist and the leading media advocate for working men and women, their families, our middle class and the American way of life" (, 14 November 2007).

Fig. 1. Lou Dobbs Vs. Lady Liberty

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