It’s Not Monolithic

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

Anyone who actually believes that the entire scientific community is embroiled in a monolithic AGW conspiracy is an idiot, Eric S. Raymond says — because it’s not monolithic:

There are a lot of players in this dance. I’ll round up a few.

First, the scientists. Most are caught up in, or struggling against, an error cascade of humongous proportions. What’s an error cascade? Somebody gave one of the type examples upthread, over the mass of the electron. This is not conspiracy, it’s a result of a tendency to use seniority or authority as a shortcut when it’s technically difficult to evaluate evidence and socially difficult to be skeptical. All humans do this, even scientists.

Next, the Gaianists — term I made up for people in whom “Save the Earth!” has psychologically substituted for traditional religion (in more or less chiliastic forms). They mean well, they really do; they recycle as an act of virtue, they worry about composting and buying local produce — and they’re totally subject to being manipulated by the other players, which is important since most of the action is going on in democracies. They’re not usually manipulated directly by the scientists, except occasionally a very wealthy one (er, think millionaire) might get hit up for funding. The Gaianists aren’t a conspiracy; they’re not organized enough. There’s some overlap with the scientists at the non-chiliastic end of this group.

Next, the green-shirts. These are political hacks of all varieties who just love the ideas of more carbon taxes, more regulation, and the general expansion of state power, especially if they can posture as virtuous eco-saviors while they’re arranging this. They’re not a conspiracy either, just a bunch of careerists who compete for the Gaianists as a voting bloc. They sometimes behave a bit like a conspiracy, but only because their behavioral incentives tend to push them all in the same direction. Er, they’re not scientists. They’re Al Gore, or they’d like to be, only with political power too.
My model of what’s been going on is basically this: The hockey team starts an error cascade that sweeps up a lot of scientists. The AGW meme awakens chiliastic emotional responses in a lot of Gaianists. The zombies and the green-shirts grab onto that quasi-religious wave as a political strategem (the difference is that the zombies actively want to trash capitalism, while the green-shirts just want to hobble and milk it). Pro-AGW scientists get more funding from the green-shirts within governments, which reinforces the error cascade — it’s easier not to question when your grant money would be at risk for doing so. After a few times around this cycle, the hockey team notices it’s riding a tiger and starts on the criminal-conspiracy stuff so it will never have to risk getting off.

Overall, is this conspiracy? No. Mostly it’s just people responding to short-term incentives, unaware that they’re caught up in an error cascade and/or being politically fucked around. Nobody involved is what you could reasonably call evil…well, except for the zombies. It would be pretty evil if the hockey team had planned all this, but I’m not cynical enough to believe that. Not yet, anyway, but I haven’t read all the emails either.

OK, now it’s months later and I’ve read enough of the emails to be fairly sure that the “team” did not in fact plan all this. Nor, I’m pretty sure, did the green-shirts or the zombies; they merely exploited an opportunity to do what they wanted to do anyway. The key point — and the reason the AGW frauds need to be shamed and punished — is that the political background conditions favoring this kind of fraud are still in place.

Since the political background conditions favoring this kind of fraud are still in place, Raymond expects to see another fraud soon — endocrine disruptors are a good bet.

This is why Aretae thinks Raymond should appear in a Heinlein novel:

The most effective way to prevent a recurrence is for there to be real penalties — political, social, and criminal — attached to playing the environmental-panic con game. It’s not a good outcome for any of us if the scientists who committed criminal data fraud and denied FOIA requests get a soft landing to positions elsewhere in academia. And the green-shirts who used that fraud as cover for their ambitions should absolutely be hounded out of public life so that politics in future will be a bit less toxic.

As for the zombies — well, hanging them all from lamp-posts would be ideal, but distinguishing them from their more-or-less innocent dupes is difficult. At least, by destroying the reputations of everyone who promoted this fraud, we might impair the zombies’ past ability to operate Gaianist organizations like so many sock puppets.

The most optimistic take on the long-term outcome is that the collapse of the AGW fraud might at least partially immunize us against future attacks of environmental junk science. I wish I were in fact that optimistic, but I’m not. In any case, a round of public excruciations of the villains in this one is certainly called for, pour encourager les autres.

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