Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.

jmk

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Texas is doing it right

If the modern idea of the Good Life is an energy intensive one, life in Texas is the best. Environmental protection and enforcement can be spotty at the state regulatory level, but there’s no denying that Texas is paradisical for developing energy. Oil and natural gas are obvious heavyweights. Texas is a national leader in wind energy development, and has its fair share of jobs in coal, employing just over 2,200 in 2006. Most exciting of all, Texas is 8th in the country for solar power.

Our relationship with the Sun is a special one. It is also an opportunity. Whether in fossil form, biomass, or direct from the source, the Sun enables but does not dictate the purposes we create that make life worth living. Clearly Texas understands this.

Eventually, solar will overtake fossils fuels as they become more expensive to extract–whether by regulation, scarcity, or inaccessibility–answering not only the energy enthusiast’s call, but also the environmentalist’s. While the precautionary and proactionary principles seem dogmatically opposed at a theoretical level, being proactionary about solar and precautionary about the environment go hand in hand. The same resonates about wind power. But the wind only blows because the sun heats the air.

To the sun god!

jmk

The ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology and the idea of environmental policy

A friend and colleague from Bard CEP, Taylor Evans, and I were brainstorming the thesis topic of another BCEP’er, Tim Maher, and we came to a point of contention that demanded a new distinction. Tim’s thesis explores the ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology (AmPT). AmPT uses “smart” technology to subliminally influence human beings to behave in certain ways that address one problem or another. Essentially, in an ideal world, AmPT manipulates the parameters of the choices immediately available to us so that we have no choice but to make morally desirable choices. Clearly, handing such immense power to technology is morally questionable. If everything goes perfectly, we solve our problems without even realizing it. But if things go poorly, techno-paternalism could spiral into hyper-modern Orwellian totalitarianism.

Naturally, given our common interests, Taylor and I were discussing AmPT in the context of environmental policy. Theoretically, AmPT could be used to improve environmental problems, but it could also represent a paternalistic imposition of environmental values on society–eco-authoritarianism. The difference is a matter of ethics—a matter of how AmPT should be regulated. But therein laid the difficulty. Before we could discuss how AmPT should be regulated, we needed to figure out exactly how the ethics of AmPT connect to the idea of environmental policy. We needed to divulge the relationship between principle and policy. To accomplish that, we needed a new distinction within the meaning of “environmental policy.”

The ethics of Ambient Persuasive Technology entail a new theoretical take on the meaning of “environmental policy.” Environmental policy in the typical sense means public policy that compels people to act differently toward the environment—meaning the atmosphere, land, hydrosphere, and all the life therein—whereas “environmental policy” in the ethics of AmPT means public policy pertaining to the environment’s capacity to compel people. But it’s more than that. The values of the designers of AmPT are inherently embedded in the design of the technology itself. AmPT is the environment manipulating people, but ultimately it is people manipulating the environment—the very space we regularly and immediately occupy—that then manipulates people. Not only do we hand over tremendous amounts of autonomy to technology, the technology itself is value-latent. But the ethics of AmPT also connect to the idea of environmental policy in another more specific sense through the how the technology is applied.

Specifically, AmPT can be used to employ the environment to compel people to act different toward the environment. AmPT, in that sense, realigns itself with the typical mission of environmental policy. Hence Taylor and my (and presumably Tim’s as well—we have to wait for the verdict of his thesis) concern.

The ethics of AmPT and its two senses of connection to “environmental policy” involve the implicit distinction between the built environment and the natural environment. For philosophical reasons, the distinction between the built and natural environment ultimately dissolves—humans and our cities are no less natural than bees and their hives. But in practical terms, the ethics of AmPT in the environmental policy context specifically involve people using the “built environment” to influence the human impact on the “natural environment.”

The ethics of AmPT connect to the idea of environmental policy in several important ways. The regulation of AmPT involves regulating the human influence on the environment and regulating the environment’s influence on humans. But ultimately it entails regulating the human capacity to influence the environment’s capacity to influence other humans. But how AmPT should be regulated is a much deeper question. AmPT, like all technology, carries as much opportunity for progress as for catastrophe. Luckily, Tim is on that for us.

EDIT: The “eco-authoritarian concern” is purely theoretical–I only specify “eco” authoritarianism because of the environmental policy context. Eco-authoritarianism is probably the last kind of authoritarianism we need to be worried about if we assume that AmPT will actually be ubiquitous.

Does being anti-fossil fuels mean being anti-modern?

To be adamantly anti-fossil fuels and then go home to happily relax in luxuries enabled by fossil fuels is an exercise of hypocrisy. But it is not hypocritical to be anti-fossil fuels and still be modernistic. Being anti-fossil fuels is not the same as being anti-modern. Exxon Mobil’s CEO thinks precautionary greens may as well curl up in a cave, but I don’t think the Fossil Fuel Resistance’s motivation is anti-modern at all. On the contrary, it’s hyper-modern. Perhaps even unrealistically so. Greens nurture a futuristic techno-utopian vision where society abandons fossil fuels entirely, renewable energy is dirt cheap, super efficient, infallibly reliable, and everybody in the world enjoys an extremely high standard of living while we coexist in perfect harmony with the ecosphere and ride bikes built from recycled bits of Al Gore to our well-paying jobs knitting organic sweaters out of diplomacy and human rights.

That last bit is obviously a joke, but unless you live on a commune far removed from society, you just can’t speak out against modernity and simultaneously live in the modern world without a profound level of cognitive dissonance–and people naturally avoid cognitive dissonance. Which is why the Fossil Fuel Resistance can’t be protesting modernity. They’re protesting the continuation of what they see as an obsolete model of modernity.

In fact, most greens would probably turn it around and argue that fossil fuels are anti-modern because we’ve been burning them for nearly two centuries now, they’ve served their purpose, and its time to progress to renewable alternatives because they’re having unintended yet still unethical ramifications for people and the planet as a whole. I’ll admit, it does come off as unappreciative and hypocritical, perhaps ignorant, to virulently demonize and criticize fossil fuels when they are undeniably the cornerstone of modernity and we all take their pervasive benefits for granted. But the Fossil Fuel Resistance isn’t protesting Keystone, fracking, and mountain top removal coal mining because they want humans to live like the stone ages. They’re being driven to the streets by their optimistic hopes for the future, their eco-egalitarian values, and their beliefs about how human beings should interact with the rest of the natural world.

But we could all do a better job of showing appreciation for the hard work and good intentions of others–greens, fossil fuelers, everyone. Partisanship and adversarial politics have become so ordinary that we forget the lives we’re so privileged to enjoy today are the result of centuries of collaborative innovation and cooperation. Modernity would not be possible without people working together, without amiable and constructive competition, without idea sharing, and without constantly and actively trying to grasp, appreciate, and respect the perspectives of those who think and see the world differently than ourselves.

Fossil fuels probably aren’t going anywhere anytime soon–and no amount of protesting will change the basic infrastructure of society instantaneously. But there is a place in this world for radical idealism. And in the face of catastrophic climate change, there is a need for it. Revolutionaries don’t earn that title by pursuing the indisputably realistic, but by challenging the status quo with dreams of what’s to come—of what should come. But no less, we need the realists, the traditionalists, and the pragmatists to remind us of our origins and keep our wheels turning in the here and now.

With a little mutual understanding and effort, there are commonalities to be found even between greens and fossil fuelers. In fact, they may not be so different at some deeper philosophical levels. Both sides believe human beings are bound for greatness, moving purposively through history toward our grand cosmic destiny. Both are interested in alleviating global poverty and human suffering through the perpetuation and dissemination of a modern standard of living, for which all agree energy is vital. Both are confident that advances in science and technology will deliver humanity to these new eras of prosperity. And both believe in the importance of democracy, liberty, fairness, and free expression in the political process. We may see reiterations of the customary story of obdurate politics like the protest on February 17th, but the differences between the poles, fundamentally, are rather superficial.

Being anti-fossil fuels does not mean being anti-modern—it means being anti-fossil fuels. The vast majority of people support modernity as a worthy end, greens and fossil fuelers simply envision different means for accomplishing that end. But there’s often dramatic miscommunication when conveying their respective positions to each other. People get dismissive, conversations breakdown acrimoniously, and the full senses of both perspectives are lost. But if greens can keep a realistic handle on hypocrisy about their own fossil fuel use, and fossil fuelers don’t pretend that coal, oil, and natural gas are just innocent, misunderstood miracle substances, then maybe we can talk constructively. Just maybe we’ll circuitously arrive at mutually agreeable policies to combat climate change, develop renewables, and mitigate the negative externalities of resource extraction without unfairly disadvantaging or appearing unappreciative of the hard work that fossil fuel developers have done for society since the industrial revolution.

Optimistic? Naïve? Sophomoric? Perhaps. But someone needs to think through a middle way.

jmk

Mars in 30 days? Solar powered space flight

Here I thought the Solar Impulse was a breakthrough in solar powered flight, but NASA, the University of Washington, and Elon Musk of SpaceX (among others) have turned it to 11. With a new Fusion Driven Rocket (FDR) design, engineers may be able to cut the trip to Mars from 8 months to somewhere between 30 and 90 days. And what’s more: the engine operates via “magnetic inertial confinement fusion,” which, thankfully its designers explain, means that the rocket’s fusion reactor could be run by solar power alone–200 KW to be exact (an extremely feasible number). If flying from California to New York on solar energy as the Impulse team intends is impressive (and it is), then the FDR team’s plan for solar powered space flight is out of this world.

Colonizing Mars–part of Musk’s plan for making life multi-planetary to ensure that “the light of consciousness is not extinguished”–is undoubtedly among the more fantastical utopian visions of the future of humanity. Moreover, the team hopes to eventually make interplanetary travel so efficient that it’s commonplace. Skeptics and detractors (myself sometimes among them) may question the endeavor on “realist” or ethical grounds, claiming that either resource scarcity or social collapse is likely to preclude any significant opportunities for interplanetary migration, or that leaving the Earth behind is a defeatist reaction to socio-ethical challenges here at home, like stabilizing the modern ecological crisis. Indeed, I still think these points have some validity.

But Julian Simon’s infinite resource of human innovation again rears its head. The FDR is already in the pipeline, so to speak. And I’ll be the first to champion the triumphs of solar technology–especially when space travel is involved. Like so many others I’m sure, the prospect of an interstellar humanity speaks volumes to my inner Lewis and Clark–the passion for adventure and discovery too often squelched by the pervasive impact of human activity on and ubiquitous presence in what remains of natural world.

Interplanetary exploration and colonization promise new environments, mysteries, challenges, and questions–philosophical and otherwise. Should we leave Earth in the first place? What is the purpose of colonizing another planet? What would “environmental philosophy” mean if/when we depart from our environment of origin? What new responsibilities do we have to the non-human if and when we undertake massive martian geo-engineering projects like terraforming? If human beings create a living ecosphere on Mars, should we see ourselves as eco-constituents subsumed by a greater natural cycle as we are here on Earth, or, in a sense, should we regard ourselves as semi-gods, directly responsible for the martian natural cycle’s very existence? How should we organize a new society on Mars? Do Earthly political philosophies still apply? Once society on Mars is established, what responsibility will Martian humans have to their Earth-dwelling counterparts, and vice versa, if any? And should we today move further into the final frontier by small precautionary steps or giant proactionary leaps? Barring any unforeseen fatal design flaws or socio-political roadblocks, we could soon have our generation’s Neil Armstrong moment on the red planet. And we’d get there on solar power no less. To the sun god!

Cheers,

jmk

Human consciousness: The normative question and the creation of value

When consciousness flickers into being, into self-awareness, it faces some basic philosophical questions. The existential question: What am I? The topographical question: Where am I? And the normative question: What should I do?—which essentially amounts to asking: What is worth doing?

And thus is born the idea of value: Asking the normative question presupposes the possibility of value because it assumes some answer, some purposive skill, is more or less worthwhile than another, or (in relativistic pluralist egalitarian fashion) that all answers are of equal worth.

Among all possible purposes, we then either choose to cultivate non-arbitrary purposive skills (biologically necessary functions), or, if we encounter an ease in fulfilling the biologically necessary, we conceive of arbitrary purposes with which to occupy our time. Whatever one’s choice in a given moment, we ascribe to that purposive skill its value through our behavior: our prioritization of its cultivation. We choose what purposes are worth the dedication of our finite existence, and in doing so, denote their value. Admittedly, this presumes that value is somewhat a function of mortality–that without finiteness, without a sense of urgency, the creation of value to make life feel meaningful is less of a pressing concern.

The value of non-arbitrary purposive skills are seated in nature—in the natural evolutionary process by which we and all life are subsumed—but we alone are the inventors of arbitrary purpose and arbitrary value. Beyond what is necessary for survival, it is left to us to determine which skills are worth cultivating. Neither God nor intrinsicity gives us this purpose—it is a matter of our creation, of our dedication.

For a purposive skill and its value to be “arbitrary” is not an evaluative claim, however, but observational. Arbitrariness is not good or bad, it simply is or is not. The cultivation of arbitrarily purposive skill is no less worthwhile or valuable than that of non-arbitrarily purposive skill. Indeed, we derive much of our sense of meaning in life from arbitrary purpose. But we must recognize ourselves as the creators of arbitrary purpose—of arbitrary value. We cannot forget that we are the arbiters; we are the source. Nor can we forget that we must fulfill non-arbitrary biological necessities (nutrition, rest, shelter…) before we can even begin to focus on arbitrary ones—a privilege not shared by all. The former comes prior to the latter as a matter of necessity—something of a biological order of operations: only once our bellies are full and our minds safely rested do we concern ourselves with the arbitrary.

In this sense, having the time and energy to focus on the arbitrary is an exquisite privilege: a joy of being human, of being conscious. It is through creating value that life feels meaningful—or at least that we overcome the sense of futility about living. Human beings are ultimately animals, but the cultivation of arbitrary skill is one of our distinguishing characteristics. It makes being human feel special—even if we are insignificant by any cosmic scheme.

The cultivation of arbitrary skill is a celebration of life! Arbitrariness is cause for ebullience. The arbitrary purposes we create make life exciting—they give people an interesting uniqueness amongst one another. Dance, art, sport, scholarly intrigues, cultural exploration—the arbitrary richness of human existence: these make living human life feel over and above the predominately non-arbitrary cycles we observe in other animals.

But the non-arbitrary is worth celebrating as well. Food, water, shelter from the frequent harshness of nature—these are fundamental to comfortable living, and thus (perhaps even more so than the arbitrary) worthy of our deep, humble appreciation. To be reminded of this is especially important in places where such amenities have become taken for granted.

The existence of consciousness is itself a sort of contingently orchestrated celebration of and by the universe. That matter-energy has slowly and stochastically evolved toward subjective self-awareness is the universe’s manner of perceiving itself, of celebrating its own existence—for despite our temporary sense of individuality, we are no more or less part of the universe as a single whole. Conscious creatures constitute the universe capacity to recognize itself. To perpetuate this awareness, we fulfill our non-arbitrary purposes—we survive as long as we can. To enrich this awareness, we indulge the arbitrary: we cultivate artistic, athletic, scholarly, specialist, and cosmopolitan skills.

This is not a hierarchy of values—the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary—but my observation of how human beings tend to answer the normative question: how we make life feel meaningful; how we make life seem worth living. Thus we give thanks. Thus we celebrate. To the sun god!