Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Social Ethic and Appeals for Technocracy

Climate activists, in discussing the implementation (or lack thereof) of policy solutions for our 'modern problems', hold forth an interesting combination of ideas about the great need for more of the Social Ethic on the one hand,
If we don't revisit the notion of collective responsibility and sobriety soon, our descendants will pay a heavy price.
-- Michael Tobis
What we lack is an ethical framework for inter-generational responsibilities (such as “pass on a habitable planet to our children”). Cost-benefit analysis avoids these ethical questions, at a time when we desperately need to address them.
-- Steve Easterbrook
and claims of the failure of democracy or public discourse on the other,
They have to see the need for pain, to sense the danger of doing nothing. They have to lead their leaders as well as follow – once they switch off, nothing good happens easily, if at all.
Wanted: an eco prophet
Perhaps we have to accept that there is no simple solution to public disbelief in science. The battle over climate change suggests that the more clearly you spell the problem out, the more you turn people away. If they don’t want to know, nothing and no one will reach them.
-- George Monbiot
Setting aside for now the unsound conflation of scientific insight with political consensus, the sentiment at the base of this meme is just as troubling. It is basically an argument that our old ethical theories and extant systems of governance are incapable of solving the problems, real or perceived, facing modern civilization. W.H. Whyte already wrote the response to this line of thought more ably than I ever could (though his target was mainly the rise of bureaucracy in business, and associated societal changes, his critique seems topical in this case as well).
My charge against the Social Ethic, then, is on precisely the grounds of contemporary usefulness it so venerates. It is not, I submit, suited to the needs of "modern man," but is instead reinforcing precisely that which least needs to be emphasized, and at the expense of that which does. Here is my bill of particulars
  It is redundant. In some societies individualism has been carried to such extremes as to endanger the society itself, and there exist today examples of individualism corrupted into a narrow egoism which prevents effective co-operation. This is a danger, there is no question of that. But is it today as pressing a danger as the oberse -- a climate which inhibits individual initiative and imagination, and the courage to exercise it against group opinion? Society is itself an education in the extrovert values, and I think it can be rightfully argued that rarely has there been a society which has preached them so hard. No man is an island unto himself, but how John Donne would writhe to hear how often and for what reasons, the thought is so tiresomely repeated.
  It is premature. To preah technique before content, the skills of getting along isolated from why and to what end the getting along is for, does not produce maturity. It produces a sort of permanent prematurity, and this is true not only of the child being taught life adjustment but of the organization man being taught well-roundedness. This is a sterile concept, and those who believe that they have mastered human relations can blind themselves to the true bases of co-operation. People don't co-operate just to co-operate; they co-operate for substantive reasons, to achieve certain goals, and unless these are comprehended the little manipulations for morale, team spirit, and such are fruitless.
And they can be worse than fruitless. Held up as the end-all of organization leadership, the skills of human relations easily tempt the new administrator into the practice of a tyranny more subtle and more pervasive than that which he means to supplant. No one wants to see the old authoritarian return, but at least it could be said of him that what he wanted primarily from you was your sweat. The new man wants your soul.
  It is delusory. It is easy to fight obvious tyranny; it is not easy to fight benevolence, and few things are more calculated to rob the individual of his defenses than the idea that his interests and those of society can be wholly compatible. The good society is the one in which they are most compatible, but they can never be completely so, and one who lets The Organization be the judge ultimately sacrifices himself. Like the good society, the good organization encourages individual expression, and many have done so. But there always remains some conflict between individual and The Organization. Is The Organization to be the arbiter? The Organization will look to its own interests, but it will look to the individual's only as The Organization interprets them.
  It is static. Organization of itself has no dynamic. The dynamic is in the individual and thus he must not only question how The Organization interprets his interests, he must question how it interprets its own. The bold new plan he feels is necessary, for example. He cannot trust that The Organization will recognize this. Most probably, it will not. It is the nature of a new idea to confound current consensus -- even the mildly new idea. It might be patently in order, but, unfortunately, the group has a vested interest in it miseries as well as its pleasures, and irrational as this may be, many a member of organization life can recall instances where the group clung to known disadvantages rather than risk the anarchies of change.
  It is self-destructive. The quest for normalcy, as we have seen in suburbia, is one of the great breeders of neuroses, and the Social Ethic only serves to exacerbate them. What is normalcy? We practice a great mutual deception. Everyone knows that they themselves are different -- that they are shy in company, perhaps, or dislike many things most people seem to like -- but they are not sure that other people are different too. Like the norms of personality testing, they see about them the sum of efforts of people like themselves to seem as normal as others and possibly a little more so. It is hard enough to learn to live with our inadequacies, and we need not make ourselves more miserable by a spurious ideal of middle-class adjustment. Adjustment to what? Nobody really knows -- and the tragedy is that they don't realize that the so-confident-seeming other people don't know either.
Science and technology do not have to be antithetical to individualism. To hold that they must be antithetical, as many European intellectuals do, is a sort of utopianism in reverse. For a century Europeans projected their dreams into America; now they are projecting their fears, and in so doing they are falling into the very trap they accuse us of. Attributing a power to the machine that we have never felt, they speak of it almost as if it were animistic and had a will of its own over and above the control of man. Thus they see our failures as inevitable, and those few who are consistent enough to pursue the logic of their charge imply that there is no hope to be found except through a retreat to the past.
This is a hopelessly pessimistic view.
The Organization Man

Whyte goes on to dismiss the nostalgic and naive caricature of individualism bandied about by the right, but rather calls for a pragmatic recognition of the natural tension between the individual and society, and that "[t]he central ideal -- that the individual, rather than society, must be the paramount end [...] is as vital and as applicable today as ever", impending climate catastrophes notwithstanding.


  1. Politics makes for poor priors (emphasis added):
    What Nature still doesn’t get is that the claims made in IPCC reports – never mind their errors – no matter how forcefully they are presented in their “full context with the underlying science”, are not presented in their full context with the underlying politics.

    Ehrlich’s politics preceded the science. And so it is with the arguments the IPCC’s projections towards climate catastrophe. The Malthusian dynamic that Ehrlich reinvented in fact works for species of animals. But humans are different because we can respond to our circumstances. In order to make his theory work for human society, Ehrlich has to rule out the possibility of human agency. This is the premise of so much environmental alarmism, including that which is now pushed in Nature. The editorial later reminds that, “the core science supporting anthropogenic global warming has not changed”. But Nature forgets that something exists prior to “the core science”, and that is the presupposition of impotence.
    The only sensible comment from nature is that “Scientists must not be so naive as to assume that the data speak for themselves”. And yet that is precisely what scientists and politicians have done. The claims that “the science is in”, “the science is settled”, “the debate is over”, and the casting of this debate as one between “science” and those who wish to “attack science” all do exactly that. They obscure the fact that a great many presuppositions and prejudices lie behind and hidden by “the science”. The consequence is that, as it is revealed that climate science simply cannot bear the weight of the moral and political claims that are invested in it, trust in science will be eroded.

    Trust and Science

  2. Another strong bias among the science community also relates to political ideology. While peer-review and other norms in science help correct for the influence of ideology on basic scientific research, they don't correct for the conclusions and judgments that scientists might draw about political debates over policy and regulation. For example, one recent study finds that in light of uncertainty about risks related to nanotechnology, liberal-leaning nanotech scientists are likely to favor stronger regulation while conservative leaning scientists are likely to oppose regulation. In other words, above and beyond scientific expertise and training, ideology in this case plays a significant role in shaping the policy preferences of nanotech scientists.
    Data Show that Climatgate has Limited Impact on Public Perceptions

    This is also consistent with anecdotal evidence in this poll conducted on the Air Vent. The selection bias here is towards engaged people who are informed on the debate and who are skeptical of the consensus pushed by the IPCC, which most of the population is not, as Dr Krosnick goes on to say:
    American public opinion, even on a highly publicized and frequently debated issue, changes very, very slowly. So in a two-month period, it's unlikely that there would be a dramatic change. My guess is that relatively few Americans are aware of the media controversy or are paying attention to it, and even fewer are influenced by it.

  3. I think I have got it. Based on how everyone is educated to believe that the founding fathers had some special insight, we treat the following phrase verrry seriously:
    "We hold these truths to be self-evident"

    So we all think that if we go through the scientific process properly, everyone will see the obviousness of the results.

    That's not the way the world works however, and Monbiot is our best social critic on this insight. My favorite quote of his:
    "Tell people something they know already and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new and they will hate you for it."

    I think it all boils down to every individual wants to exert some control over the way they view their world. They work for The Organization, yet, in the end, they need to show some individuality.

  4. Thanks for the comments fellas.

    They work for The Organization, yet, in the end, they need to show some individuality.
    This is basically what Whyte said about the true executive and the true scientist; they can never really be Organization Men, their allegiances lay elsewhere (gmcrews, you might say the scientist has prima facie duty beyond the mundane duties to the organization, whether this is the case for the executive I'm not sure). There are lots of parallels between Whyte's work on The Organization and Plato's Republic (eg. the justice of requiring loyalty to the organization/city, the different types of employees/citizens you need, noble lies we tell to engender loyalty, etc.) but going in to that requires a bit more thought on my part, a post for another time.

    Monbiot is an interesting case because he displays some of the split allegiances:
    Despite my iconoclastic, anti-corporate instincts, I now spend much of my time defending the scientific establishment from attacks by the kind of rabble-rousers with whom I usually associate. My heart rebels against this project: I would rather be pelting scientists with eggs than trying to understand their datasets. But my beliefs oblige me to try to make sense of the science and to explain its implications. This turns out to be the most divisive project I’ve ever engaged in. The more I stick to the facts, the more virulent the abuse becomes.
    On first reading, the cynic in me thought this was just a rhetorical trick to build credibility, but perhaps not; maybe it's just a good example of the prior he's bringing to the task. Those tend to hurt credibility only when hidden. I think he still fails to make the distinction that George pointed out between bare facts and policy; the public's reaction to the bare facts is generally "so what?" rather than "virulent".

  5. The Climatologist Kings can save us:
    The problem is that people grew up in a world where there was no global collective, and the idea threatens them. The fact that practically any reasonable reading of the implications of climatology presents a very clear case for the necessity of global governance connects that fear and hostility to a science.

    In striking parallel to the philosopher kings of Plato's Socrates' city in speech, the climatologists don't want to rule, just be left to their study:
    Unfortunately climatology is obligated to explain the extent to which plausible scenarios over the next few decades could lead to severe consequences. We would like to fulfill this obligation and be left alone after the fact...

  6. In the post I wrote: argument that our old ethical theories and extant systems of governance are incapable of solving the problems, real or perceived, facing modern civilization., this is not a new meme (emphasis added):
    Some Progressives openly or covertly spoke of themselves as socialists. Woodrow Wilson did so in an unpublished writing. A society like the Founders' that limits itself to protecting life, liberty, and property was one in which, as Wilson wrote with only slight exaggeration, "all that government had to do was to put on a policeman's uniform and say, 'Now don't anybody hurt anybody else.'" Wilson thought that such a society was unable to deal with the conditions of modern times.
    The Progressive Movement and the Transformation of American Politics

  7. Science, the Humanities and the University is a set of five articles in The New Atlantis touching on some aspects of emerging/established technocracy.

  8. Technocracy, Populism, and the New Ideology:
    The basic political premise of techno-politics is that the classic question regarding competing claims to rule has been decisively answered: instead of Plato’s philosopher king we get its emasculated modern descendant, the rational bureaucrat. The ascendancy of techno-politics also assumes that human behavior has been rendered docile-the victory of administrative science over practical statesmanship is based on an exaggerated version of Montesquieu’s prediction that a turn to commercial pursuits would usher in a general “softening of mores.” The turn to benign interests is a turn away from the messier and more obviously political questions that involve the identification of a controversial good and the contest among citizens vying for honor. The incoherence within the technocratic view of political life is that it simultaneously denies a politics based on the love of honor but showers honor upon those who claim a greater share of reason. In contradistinction to honor politics, the rule of management science presupposes men that are easily manageable, subject to domestication, and satisfied by the appropriate calculus of interests. If politics is nothing but the deliberative regulation of benign interest, then the simple rule of administrative competence might actually suffice. However, there are also men who are driven by more than merely interest—they also want honor and a recognition of their individual importance, and ironically enough, this includes the technocrat.

  9. More authoritarian silliness from Tobis. I see the utter metaphysical confusion in that thread as a symptom of the extreme specialization in the modern University. We clearly do not give our natural philosophers enough grounding in political philosophy and ethics.

  10. Up thread I said: ...what Whyte said about the true executive and the true scientist; they can never really be Organization Men, their allegiances lay elsewhere

    From the WSJ:General Electric's Jack Welch may have been the last of the great corporate builders. But even Mr. Welch was famous for waging war on bureaucracy. Other management icons of recent decades earned their reputations by attacking entrenched corporate cultures, bypassing corporate hierarchies, undermining corporate structures, and otherwise using the tactics of revolution in a desperate effort to make the elephants dance. The best corporate managers have become, in a sense, enemies of the corporation.
    The End of Management

    (of course, he's just pimping his new book; but it's still interesting)

  11. Courtesy of Pielke Jr:
    At their worst, efforts to revive the pure science ideal underwrite technocratic attempts to stifle democracy by imposing scientific solutions to political problems.
    Science in Democracy

  12. Ancient up-thread history: WHT:They work for The Organization, yet, in the end, they need to show some individuality.
    This is basically what Whyte said about the true executive and the true scientist; they can never really be Organization Men, their allegiances lay elsewhere

    Judith Curry is an interesting case study for Whyte's conceptual framework concerning the organization (in this case the IPCC) and the scientist (Dr Curry). Here's some snippets and links:
    When the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report was published in 2007, I joined the consensus in supporting this document as authoritative; I was convinced by the rigors of the process, etc etc. While I didn’t personally agree with everything in the document (still nagging concerns about the treatment of uncertainty), I bought into the meme of “don’t trust what one scientist says, listen to the IPCC.” During 2008 and 2009, I became increasingly concerned by the lack of “policy neutrality” by people involved in the IPCC and policies that didn’t make sense to me. But after all, “don’t trust what one scientist says”, and I continued to substitute the IPCC assessment for my own personal judgment.
    Curry: the back-story

    In trying to understand the Judith Curry phenomenon, it is tempting to default to one of two comfortable and familiar story lines.
    Climate Heretic: Judith Curry turns on her colleagues
    Lemonick sucumbs to this temptation in a classic hatchet job. Don't worry guys, he's still a good Organization Man.

    The title of the article itself is rather astonishing. The Wikipedia defines heresy as: “Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma.” The definition of dogma is “Dogma is the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, ideology or any kind of organization: it is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted, or diverged from.” Use of the word “heretic” by Lemonick implies general acceptance by the “insiders” of the IPCC as dogma. If the IPCC is dogma, then count me in as a heretic. The story should not be about me, but about how and why the IPCC became dogma.
    Heresy and the Creation of Monsters

    Skepticism has been rather unfortunately defined to be anyone who diverges from IPCC orthodoxy, not only in terms of the science, but in terms of accepting the policies that science “tells us” we must have. The revolt is more in the sense of breaking this linear link between science and policy (see also this post by Pielke Jr.).
    The Curry Agonistes

    To fully understand the enduring Judith Curry Phenomenon, you have to appreciate the power of a storyline that is not much discussed: Curry as climate apostate.
    Curry the Apostate

  13. Not just Tobis, Easterbrook and Monbiot, Trenberth too:
    Trenberth's rant is much richer when it comes to fringe political declarations. We learn that "the planet is already over-populated" and our usage of the atmosphere leads to "the tragedy of the commons". That's what breathing boils down to: I kid you not. Trenberth wants to introduce a planned economy "for decades ahead" because he finds it bad that politicians may be replaced in "the next election" (a concept known as democracy)
    Kevin Trenberth's weird opinions about the climate