Who is More Anti-Science? - Dilbert Blog

Who is More Anti-Science?

[3/25/15 FINAL UPDATE and Verdict at end of post]

Against all odds, it appears my post last week on gender bias in the workplace has been accepted as “balanced” by both the feminist side and the Red Pill guys on Reddit. I am confident no one saw that coming. 

[I scrubbed more bias out of it over the weekend based on critiques. Updates at the end of the piece.]

That was the first test of a “system” for curating debates with an eye toward removing bias. The key to making it work seems to be a willingness to include both sides, and to update as new information arrives. And it has to be done in public so folks see the work. 

Can the system work again? Let’s test it. I will intentionally pick one of the most politicized (and absurd) debates, run it through our system, and see if it can wring most of the bias out.

The question is whether Republicans or Democrats are more “anti-science.” Obviously there are plenty of pro-science folks in both parties. So we will be dealing with comical stereotypes.

So why bother?

I think the debate on a national level is a distraction. Perhaps we can take it off the table so the country can focus on something useful. If you think the other party is the “anti-science” party, why would you ever take them seriously? So while the debate is somewhat absurd, it has a big impact on the real world.

I will start the system by priming it with a first draft verdict. Submit your links and comments to refine this “living” debate. I will update as needed.

Here is the starting point of my anti-science balance sheet for Republicans and Democrats. And remember we are only dealing with comical stereotypes. There is no claim that any individual fits what follows.

For this first draft, I see the anti-science topics sorted this way.

Republicans (stereotype)

  • Deny evolution
  • Mostly religious
  • Laffer Curve (supply-side economics)
  • Climate change not caused by people
  • Anti-vax [update – no on list for both parties]

Democrats (stereotype)

  • Believe a gender pay gap of 25% comparing same jobs
  • Mostly religious
  • Anti-vax
  • Climate change alarmism (as opposed to denying)

Claim 1: One political party in the United States is the “anti-science” party.

Verdict: False. Comparing stereotype-to-stereotype, I judge the major political parties to be roughly equal in their selective ignoring of data and science.

Claim 2: While the raw number of anti-science topics might be equal on both sides, one side has much worse (more dangerous) views.

Verdict: False. It is not clear which side has more dangerous views.

Different views on evolution are mostly benign in the sense that no one ever died because of being wrong about punctuated equilibrium. The larger risk here is that ignoring science on any topic is a bad idea for civilization. But there is no objective standard for predicting how bad that really is in the complicated real world. We have only speculation.

The anti-vax movement could, in one imagined outcome, kill millions of people. But I think a few small outbreaks would be enough to keep things contained. I judge the anti-vax movement to be a huge potential problem, but in all likelihood one that will be controlled. And an update to this argument shows both parties have about the same number of anti-vax folks.

A misunderstanding about gender pay parity could lead to lots of unproductive and unfair results. But compared to the other threats that are more life-and-death they are a different class. 

Supply-side economics done wrong could ruin the economy of an entire nation and sentence millions of poor people to death by hardship. But in 2015 the risk of supply-side economics becoming the policy of the United States is low. 

For new readers, I remind you that I am pro-religion, because I see it providing more good than bad, and doing so by a large margin. But religion is, by design, outside the realm of science. Since both parties are religious by majority, I only include religion on my list for completeness. I judge them a tie on that dimension.

That brings us to climate change as the tie-breaker for the anti-science verdict. And here I break the question into two parts that are often conflated:

Climate Change Claim 1: Human activity plus natural factors are changing the climate in ways that could be calamitous.

Verdict: True. The overwhelming majority of credible scientists agree.

Climate Change Claim 2: The coming changes to our climate will most-likely cause enormous net economic loss.

Verdict: False. Climate change will likely cause a huge gross expense, but no one can predict the net effect after accidental benefits are counted. And no one can predict what technologies or systems humans will invent to respond.

Common sense says that economic disruption on a global scale has to be bad for economies. But if you layer some simple economic concepts on top of that common sense it becomes less clear.

For example, disruption by climate change could mean that valuable land becomes less valuable. And since rich people own all the good land, this ends up being a reduction of income inequality. 

[I will stipulate here that I do not understand, from a strictly economic viewpoint, why income inequality is considered a problem. But smart people seem to agree that it is, and I find that hard to ignore.]

Who would pay the price for most of the economic disruption from climate change? Probably the top 1%, simply because they have most of the money and the most to lose. If you want to relocate your production facilities, your farms, and your mansions, you need to hire a lot of folks to get it done. It is easy to imagine climate change becoming a boon to employment.

And consider the technological advances that any huge disruption causes. Climate change is likely to inspire faster advances in green energy, self-driving cars, battery storage, desalinization, and more. So while the risk of climate change seems truly enormous, the technological advances it spawns might be even more important. How would we know?

My prediction is that humans will develop climate engineering technology to directly control the atmosphere. Some ideas along those lines have already been proposed and they don’t look crazy. Once we learn how to control our atmosphere we are more protected against future climate challenges we don’t see coming (volcanoes, meteors, etc.). We might even find ways to micro-control rainfall and terraform new planets. The upside potential is mind-boggling. There is of course a risk that the planet does not survive long enough for these rescue technologies to mature.

One must also consider what I call the Adams Rule of Slow-Moving Disasters. That rule says that while the risk of climate change appears very real, humans are clever at side-stepping disasters when they see them coming with so much warning. (The sudden catastrophes are the ones that gettcha.) So if I had to bet my own money on how climate change ends, I put my money on a happy ending. (But only if everyone else believes the risk is enormous so they keep developing solutions.)

Once again we see a situation in which the truth might be the biggest threat to human survival. If people believed, as I do, that humans are great at last-minute saves, we might get complacent. And complacency would be a death sentence.

Claim 3: It important that people be educated about climate change and the risk it poses.

Verdict: False. If people were educated they would likely put too much faith in humanity’s ability to sidestep the coming danger. And if folks believed the net effect is unpredictable, versus definitely terrible, that too could cause complacency. 

Given that climate change could end humanity if not addressed in an aggressive fashion, the smartest approach is whatever has the greatest chance of working. And that probably means keeping the climate-change alarm on full-blare, at the cost of being 100% forthcoming, until we are clear of the problem.

Now you have a draft verdict to improve. I will be monitoring and making adjustments accordingly.

Update 1: 

This link suggests that the more folks understand about science the more they DISAGREE on what science is saying. That supports my verdict that additional science education would not make the world safer on the topic of climate change.

Update 2: 

Claim 4: Studies show both parties have about the same ratio of folks who trust in vaccinations.

Verdict: True. The balance sheet of “anti-science” is corrected above.

Claim 5: Democrats are more likely to be against new nuclear power and that is anti-science.

Verdict: Off topic. The nuclear power issue is more about risk management than about belief in science. And some of the arguments are about the comparative economics, as opposed to science. (Open to counter-argument here.0

Claim 5: Democrats are more likely to be against fracking. That is anti-science.

Verdict: Off topic. Disagreements about fracking are not disagreements about science. My working hypothesis is that the impact of fracking in all situations is unknown.  (Open to counter-argument here.)

Claim 6: Democrats are more likely to deny the safety of GMOs. That is anti-science.

Verdict: Incomplete data. If the story is that one side wants more data on the risk, that would be off-topic. 

Update: 3/25/15

Claim 7: The question of who is more anti-science is impossible to answer because you can not distinguish between ignorance versus true anti-science behavior. Also, one can not distinguish between ignorance of science and a rational desire to avoid the risk of the unknown. For example, the issues of fracking, GMOs, and nuclear power, can have opponents of all types and for different reasons.

Verdict: True. And I am going to claim this as a successful test of the system for turning irrational opinions into rational outcomes. It was not obvious to me before starting this exercise that the question is too faulty to be useful. Nor was it obvious to me that the alleged anti-science thinking was so widespread in both major parties and crossed so many topics.

So I declare a tie on the question of “which party is more anti-science.” 

I am closing down this debate as being unproductive beyond this point. Normally the model would involve keeping a debate open indefinitely so it evolves and improves. But this debate is not worth the effort. It was, however, a great test of the system.

Scott Adams

In other news, Tesla’s cars can become self-driving with nothing but a software update. Elon Musk predicts human drivers will become illegal because they are too dangerous. If you have a kid under ten, will that child ever drive an automobile? I think maybe no.

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