Why We Should Choose Science over Beliefs: Scientific American

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Ever since college I have been a libertarian—socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I believe in individual liberty and personal responsibility. I also believe in science as the greatest instrument ever devised for understanding the world. So what happens when these two principles are in conflict? My libertarian beliefs have not always served me well. Like most people who hold strong ideological convictions, I find that, too often, my beliefs trump the scientific facts. This is called motivated reasoning, in which our brain reasons our way to supporting what we want to be true. 

Take gun control. I always accepted the libertarian position of minimum regulation in the sale and use of firearms because I placed guns under the beneficial rubric of minimal restrictions on individuals. Then I read the science on guns and homicides, suicides and accidental shootings (summarized in my May column) and realized that the freedom for me to swing my arms ends at your nose. The libertarian belief in the rule of law and a potent police and military to protect our rights won't work if the citizens of a nation are better armed but have no training and few restraints. Although the data to convince me that we need some gun-control measures were there all along, I had ignored them because they didn't fit my creed. In several recent debates with economist John R. Lott, Jr., author of More Guns, Less Crime, I saw a reflection of my former self in the cherry picking and data mining of studies to suit ideological convictions. We all do it, and when the science is complicated, the confirmation bias (a type of motivated reasoning) that directs the mind to seek and find confirming facts and ignore disconfirming evidence kicks in.

 

My libertarianism also once clouded my analysis of climate change. I was a longtime skeptic, mainly because it seemed to me that liberals were exaggerating the case forglobal warming as a kind of secular millenarianism—an environmental apocalypse requiring drastic government action to save us from doomsday through countless regulations that would handcuff the economy and restrain capitalism, which I hold to be the greatest enemy of poverty. Then I went to the primary scientific literature on climate and discovered that there is convergent evidence from multiple lines of inquiry that global warming is real and human-caused: temperatures increasing, glaciers melting, Arctic ice vanishing, Antarctic ice cap shrinking, sea-level rise corresponding with the amount of melting ice and thermal expansion, carbon dioxide touching the level of 400 parts per million (the highest in at least 800,000 years and the fastest increase ever), and the confirmed prediction that if anthropogenic global warming is real the stratosphere and upper troposphere should cool while the lower troposphere should warm, which is the case.

Written By: Michael Shermer
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

13 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, you have to look at who did the “science”. It is not really science if the author has some massive financial interest in the outcome. You also have to use common sense. For example, some pipeline companies were promising spills could only happen about once every 60,000 years. This is obvious nonsense. Just check your newspaper for the number of spills in the last week.

    • In reply to #1 by Roedy:

      Unfortunately, you have to look at who did the “science”. It is not really science if the author has some massive financial interest in the outcome. You also have to use common sense. For example, some pipeline companies were promising spills could only happen about once every 60,000 years. This…

      You want to drive your vehicle? Get cheap food? heat your house? go on holidays?….so where do you think the energy comes from? You want save transport of those commodities? Then get used to pipelines. There is no safer way. The alternatives are: rail…yeah, really good choice. Road..man even better, you are a winner.
      We all participate in this oil/gas based economy, and the demand is there, and the stuff will get to market by any means. If you block pipelines – rail it will be, we just saw what happens in Canada.
      Unless we all decouple from primary energy – what we will not use, others will.
      Not a good scenario, but economic reality.

      • In reply to #2 by kraut:

        Roedy’s point was (i believe) that you need to be sceptical of any given data source. If industry scientists have a vested interest – ie are employed by a pipeline company, it may be unwise to accept their data at face value. I saw nothing in his short and to the point statement about his stance on energy supply, just that he used an example of bad science to illustrate his point.

      • In reply to #2 by kraut:

        You want to drive your vehicle? Get cheap food? heat your house? go on holidays?….so where do you think the energy comes from? You want save transport of those commodities? Then get used to pipelines. There is no safer way. The alternatives are: rail…yeah, really good choice. Road..man even better, you are a winner. We all participate in this oil/gas based economy, and the demand is there, and the stuff will get to market by any means. If you block pipelines – rail it will be, we just saw what happens in Canada.

        This kind of misses the point of dumping carbon-luddite pollution in favour of alternative technologies. The underlying problem is an expanding human population with expanding expectations of consumption.

        It simply does not have to be like that. If some countries can greatly reduce their needs for fossil fuels, so can others.

        Ethanol fuel in Brazil
        Brazil is the world’s second largest producer of ethanol fuel, and until 2010, the world’s largest exporter. Together, Brazil and the United States lead the industrial production of ethanol fuel, accounting together for 87.8 percent of the world’s production in 2010,[1][2] and 87.1 percent in 2011.[3] In 2011 Brazil produced 21.1 billion liters (5.57 billion U.S. liquid gallons), representing 24.9 percent of the world’s total ethanol used as fuel.[3]

        Brazil is considered to have the world’s first sustainable biofuels economy and the biofuel industry leader,[4][5][6][7] a policy model for other countries; and its sugarcane ethanol “the most successful alternative fuel to date.”[8] However, some authors consider that the successful Brazilian ethanol model is sustainable only in Brazil due to its advanced agri-industrial technology and its enormous amount of arable land available;[8] while according to other authors it is a solution only for some countries in the tropical zone of Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

        Brazil’s 37-year-old ethanol fuel program is based on the most efficient agricultural technology for sugarcane cultivation in the world,[12] uses modern equipment and cheap sugar cane as feedstock, the residual cane-waste (bagasse) is used to produce heat and power, which results in a very competitive price and also in a high energy balance (output energy/input energy), which varies from 8.3 for average conditions to 10.2 for best practice production.[6][13] In 2010, the U.S. EPA designated Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as an advanced biofuel due to its 61% reduction of total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, including direct indirect land use change emissions.[14][15]

        There are no longer any light vehicles in Brazil running on pure gasoline. Since 1976 the government made it mandatory to blend anhydrous ethanol with gasoline, fluctuating between 10% to 22%.[16] and requiring just a minor adjustment on regular gasoline engines.

        ..

        Unless we all decouple from primary energy – what we will not use, others will. Not a good scenario, but economic reality.

        Many of the carbon industry economic claims a bunkum to rubbish their competitors. As Brazil has done in the past, China is busy setting up hydro-electric schemes.

        Renewable energy in Brazil accounted for more than 85.4% of the domestically produced electricity used in Brazil, according to preliminary data from the 2009 National Energy Balance, conducted by the Energy Research Corporation.

        kraut: – heat your house?

        There are many ways to greatly improve the heating of houses. – Better insulation, waste-heat recovery, ground heat-storage, solar thermal, burning bio-waste, – and from electrical generation using renewables, or thorium nuclear – picking ones relevant to the local geography and climate.

        • In reply to #6 by Alan4discussion:

          You are shitting me for sure? You really still believe that bunk that ethanol production is in any way superior to extraction of gas? Man, you really did not keep up with the debunking of that outrageously inefficient production of a mobile fuel. Oil extraction is about 1:3 i/o in the worst case scenario, methanol production actually has been shown to result in a negative ratio of up to 1.2: 1.
          Get with the times and stop believing bull from the agro fuel industry.

  2. Individual liberty and personal responsibility I’m cool with. But the libertarian shtick seems to stray towards tin foil hat territory, that all government is evil and out to get you. Guns and global warming are not the only problem areas to make a reasonable person want to hand in their membership card.

  3. The writer seems to be talking about two different types of beliefs.

    Saying that whilst having deep feelings guides us naturally, that it would be better to accept science from a higher power.

    AND be short-on-information on all the subject talking points. Swaying away from the social-liberal as i understand it, and what i understand social-liberal is.

  4. I would like to hear Shermer how he thinks capitalism is an answer to poverty! As Bradbury points out on the source page:

    “Perhaps he could start by reviewing the evidence on the stagnant or falling real incomes for great swathes of people over decades in a libertarian capitalist economy.” …with ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the poorest of the populace, especially so in the US.

    • In reply to #7 by RSingh:

      I would like to hear Shermer how he thinks capitalism is an answer to poverty! As Bradbury points out on the source page

      I think capitalism is an answer to poverty if it’s practiced correctly. It’s one of the things that I find so immature about the US left, that they constantly mock capitalism without putting forward a viable alternative. I feel about Capitalism the way Churchill felt about Democracy: it’s terrible except in comparison with the alternatives.

      State socialism or communism clearly is worse, the concentration of power without democratic controls inevitably leads to the worst kinds of abuses and a privileged class worse than the worst of Capitalism. And the alternatives I’ve heard from people like the Occupy movement are pie in the sky anarchic utopianism.

      Besides Capitalism can be pretty cool. It does lots of things that are needed, it rewards people who work hard and better themselves, it has built in incentives for innovation and experimentation. The problem is that in the US we have an irrational worship of Capitalism. Thinking nonsensical things like “Government is the problem” or that freedom to do what you want with your property comes before the freedom of the population to have basic things like healthcare and clean air and water.

      What is needed is a realization that Capitalism works best when there is real democracy and where the government makes sure that basic needs are met and that corporations don’t do harmful things for short term profit. Essentially the idea of checks and balances that the US founders thought was so important in government also applies to the relation between government and business.

      • In reply to #8 by Red Dog:
        Fair-enough, as long as you count, “irrational worship of Capitalism” as bad. I do not have an alternative to capitalism either, except to suggest that a capitalistic situation where the likes of W. Buffet pay less tax (% of income basis) than some of his employees (if I recall correctly, Mr Buffet has himself pointed this out sometime) is patently pro-poverty and pro-inequality sinister capitalism. If you qualify capitalism to the degree you have, a case could equally be made for communism with some qualifications…Look at China…..how its mixing communism with capitalism, to my reckoning, in an exemplary way, if….#$% ##$%.

    • In reply to #7 by RSingh:

      I would like to hear Shermer how he thinks capitalism is an answer to poverty! As Bradbury points out on the source page:

      “Perhaps he could start by reviewing the evidence on the stagnant or falling real incomes for great swathes of people over decades in a libertarian capitalist economy.” …with ever-widening gap between the super-rich and the poorest of the populace, especially so in the US.

      In the UK David Cameron has imposed a “bedroom-tax” on low income tenants, but is dealing with the “poverty issue”, by legal action on behalf of those poor deprived bankers, who are threatened by European regulators, with having their bonuses restricted to only twice their annual salaries!

  5. Yes, to the last couple of comments. We need a balance. A hybrid of capitalism with some socialist type policies is what we’ve had in the past like the phone company and utilities being regulated, and that worked fairly well. Those are things EVERYone needs and we don’t have much choice in consuming them. Healthcare is another. But, Reagan deregulated the utilities and broke up the phone company and now we’re paying skyhigh rates for these necessities – especially healthcare. Greed is good to a point. It does drive you to better yourself. But if, like in today’s economy there are so few ways to better yourself, it is hard to keep beating your head against the wall. We need a return to some sensible policies. I hear all the time we need to take the bridle off of capitalism and let it do what it does best. Ummm, hate to break it to those folks but that’s pretty much what we’ve had the last few decades and look at where it has gotten us.

    • In reply to #10 by MAJORPAIN:

      Yes, to the last couple of comments. We need a balance. A hybrid of capitalism with some socialist type policies is what we’ve had in the past like the phone company and utilities being regulated, and that worked fairly well. Those are things EVERYone needs and we don’t have much choice in consuming…

      Exactly. I think it’s reasonable to say the embrace of Capitalism by many in the US is similar to a religion. There are dogmas that can’t be challenged in spite of overwhelming evidence. I remember when this “free market works best for everything” first started taking hold in the US. At the time I thought it sounded reasonable at least. The free market works great for a lot of things let’s try expanding it and see how it works. Well we’ve seen and it sucks. Just looking at Healthcare for example, the evidence is very strong, the universal healthcare that the rest of the industrialized world has is far better. And not by some touchy feely metrics judging who can get healthcare but by very practical metrics on outcomes and cost. The US pays a lot more and gets much worse healthcare than where there is universal healthcare. And the effects of under funding our infrastructure and regulation bodies can be seen by the bridges falling down and people getting salmonella from their food.

      But the extreme reaction, to just say all CEO’s are the equivalent of cartoon villains and that we need to abolish capitalism is an irrational response. We need to focus on rational and practical solutions that include business not dreaming about utopias with no corporations that we will never see the way so many in the US left do.

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