“Re-coupling science and policy” — an elaboration

Hello fellow humans! I hope you are well. My friend, colleague, and co-author Dr. Alexander Lee, and I wrote a short opinion piece, “Re-coupling science and policy” for the Daily Camera–a local Boulder newspaper–earlier this week.

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This short piece is concurrent with the argument in another of our recent articles, “Two problems of climate change: Can we lose the planet but save ourselves?” published in the journal Ethics, Policy, & EnvironmentThere, we argue that the variety of values-based claims central to the climate ethics discussion, from concern with the burdens of harmful climate impacts to the priority of rectifying the wrongdoing of climate change, are given disproportionate emphasis; most emphasis–we think problematically–is put on the harms-dimension of the climate problem, while we believe the latter is closer to the true heart of the immorality and unethical nature of anthropogenic climate change.

In this new short opinion piece, Alex and I consider the recent turns of events concerning The March for Science, Scott Pruitt’s mass-firing of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, and the general trend of unreasonable decision-making, silencing of scientists, and dismantling of values-discourse altogether in the age of Trump.

Science, as it were, is being de-coupled from the policymaking process. Why the decoupling? Because science, and our reliance on science in making decisions of public import, ultimately reflects the progressive values central to the age of reason, i.e. the value we place on collaboration, fostering open discourse among even and especially those who disagree, the importance of evidence, the approach of objectivity, the testability of hypotheses and reproducibility of methods, and the centrality of cooperation to social, political, and ethical progress; values which, I think rather clearly, the Trump Administration does not share. And thus its leaders have taken significant steps to decouple science from the policymaking and public decision-making process. Yet another sign that the age of reason is dead. 

Decoupling science from the policymaking process is yet another move in the Trump Administration’s course to remove representatives of reason from the public discourse; the scheme to silence reasonable public discourse outright. As Alex and I argue, “silencing scientists silences values” — and the open consideration of values is indispensable to the march of progress. As progress in ethics and social order is non-linear, and certainly not guaranteed or immune to regress, we must be tireless in its defense. And to be sure, where science and values discourse alike are squelched by the Trump Administration, it’s not just the age of reasons that’s under siege — it is the very possibility of progress in society.

Let’s get it together, humans.

The age of reason is dead

Fake news, merchants of doubt, alternative facts, silenced scientists, and the con-mander-in-chief. The end of the age of reason is upon us. It’s been dying. But it’s finally dead. And so we eulogize:

As Carl Sagan (1997) prophesized:

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…”

Our regressive descent into mysticism and superstition has reached terminal velocity. Late capitalism and the Anthropocene have delivered us to a new medieval period of human history, coupled with a neo-feudal socioeconomic order and global klepto-plutocratic oligarchy.

Most have been deluded by radical progress in science and technology to believe that progress in ethics and social order is necessarily concurrent. Among the most delusional are those who remain ascribed to the leftist dogma that globalization and the worldwide liberation of human beings from the barbarity of the human condition are guaranteed. Progress in science and technology may be a fact but it is all the more evident now that inevitable progress in ethics, politics, and social order are a myth.

The rise of Trump, Brexit, and right-wing populism in western Europe are mere symptoms of the utopian and fundamentally unsustainable project of global neoliberalism and installing western-style democracy the world over. Even the bastions of liberal social order in Europe and North America are buckling under the pressures of globalization and the task of governing radically pluralistic society.

The political right many live in a fantasy of denial about the trajectory of diversity and demographics in Western culture, the science of climate change, and the possibility of sustaining the longstanding heteronormative, patriarchic, and anti-ecological social hierarchy amidst unprecedented pluralism, but the left is perhaps worse off in remaining faithful that human beings will universally “see the light” and reject the superstitions and prejudices that are seemingly inseparable from the rapacity and tribalism of human nature.

As isolationist plutocratic oligarchy becomes the new governmental norm of 21st century politics, there’s a little evidence to support that our gradual dissent into darkness will reverse course.

As Dan Kahan and the Cultural Cognition Project of Yale University have confirmed for years, people’s superstitions, values, and world views invariably precede their acceptance of empirical data that contradictions their predispositions. It’s simply easier to accept facts that confirm your worldview than to change one’s mind, potentially upending one’s sense of order and meaning in life. To accommodate our cognitive dissonance we rather pretend the world isn’t what it is. Instead of untangling the moral valence of scientific research in civic discourses, we prefer to silence them altogether—to silence scientific and ethical communication outright.

For years now our politics have been shrouded in mis-information about everything ranging from the ills of smoking cigarettes to the causes of human induced climate change. Merchants of Doubt have been among us for decades and now they remain among the only voices not silenced by the current US federal administration.

Some representatives of the scientific and progressive community have “gone rogue” on Twitter and remain dedicated to contesting the slew of falsehoods perpetuated by those with financial interests in the status quo of energy production, gender norms, and institutional oppression across races and genders and sexualities. But ultimately these outbursts of indignation will be consumed by the indiscernible din of hodgepodge identity politics and conflict among the elites and populists of the left.

The unwillingness of the political left and right to even engage in coherent civic discourse and has brought upon us the era of fake news and alternate facts. Rather than wrestle with truth, untangle the diversions of values and moral assumptions underlying our disagreements, and cooperate, we prefer to submerge ourselves in echo-chambers that make us comfortable and self-righteous, only reinforcing what we merely presume to be objective truth about the direction and order of the world.

It should come as no surprise that the challenges of experimenting with pluralistic society have culminated in the reemergence of intractable tribalism; tribes that refuse to even listen to one another. The age of reason worked while it did because discourse enabled constructive disagreement and ultimately collaboration, but our inability to be discursive about our treatises of ethics and social order evidences that for all our technoscientific progress, reason will succumb to the barbaric disposition of human beings to use the power of technology to wage war on ourselves and the non-human world alike rather than create a world without poverty, oppression, and ecological degradation.

We have abandoned our reasonable capacities to take responsibility for human agency in the world. Trump’s reinsertion of interest in torture; the reinstatement of black sites; the embrace of dictators from Putin to Assad; nuclear re-proliferation; the outright denial of human-caused climate change; the rapid backpedaling of progress in women’s, non-heterosexual, and non-cisgender rights; voter suppression; white nationalism; the retraction of US humanitarian aid around the world; the beginnings of mass deportation or internment of Mexicans and Muslims; and the refusal to accept political and climate refugees simply on the basis of their ethnicities and religions are the tip of the regressive iceberg. If anything, the rise of Trump demonstrates that the liberal progressive vision of the world’s trajectory toward global tolerance and pluralism is a secular utopian myth.

Ultimately any remaining exaltation of liberal utopianism is a matter of secular faith. Some will surely attempt to cast their faith as optimistic confidence in the capacity of human reason to overcome the primitive barbarism of our animal condition, but such a subtle difference in framing cannot cover up the apparent mysticism of liberal millenarianism.

As the age of reason comes to a close the only reasonable prediction left is that by John Gray in his book Black Mass. As the project of globalization fails to deliver its promise of universal economic and political liberation from the hardships and barbarity of the human condition, succumbing to the laws of entropy, the human experience will again be characterized by a resurgence of fundamentalist religion, superstition, and allegiance to mythology as a last ditch effort to maintain any sense of order and direction and meaning and purpose in our existence.

I still find happiness, contentment, and solace in my loved ones, in music, in beauty and art and literature, in exploring the wilderness, in pluralism, and in the catharsis of writing; but my faith in human reason has been eclipsed by the swell of fear and barbarity around the world, paired with the fervent but unfounded insistence from the left that “this too will pass” and the arc of progress will once again and necessarily take route. I will continue to do everything in my power to protect and assist people and the nonhuman world in need; to take responsibility and act for good reasons; to live ethically. I will continue to write and speak out and petition and defend what I believe to be justified and right. But liberals, now more evident than ever, cannot take progress for granted. When we assume that progress in ethics is guaranteed or inevitable—the natural and righteous evolution of humanity—and that this is just a hiccup—we’re no better than the mystics of the ancient world for whom reason had little value.


Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.


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.


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.

To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to jmk.frackingideals@gmail.com and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.


Jordan M. Kincaid

When ideals lead to no deals

In a sentence, when US policy actors frame environmental debates in terms of ideology, empirical questions with serious implications for society and nature become intractable. The political stagnancy that has resulted from dogmatic, uncompromising ideology harms everyone in the long run, even those who temporarily benefit from a de facto preservation of the status quo. Arguments about climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, and sea level rise, when made in ideological terms, often become irresolvable due to the incompatibilities of competing value systems, ethics, and teleologies, and thus we have so far failed to substantively address the non-arbitrary environmental problems that we face today. We become so entrenched in promoting our visions of what should be that we lose sight of what is.

I am not exempt from this critique. I have my own habit of expressing myself pontifically about the problems of American anthropocentricism, materialism, and neoliberalism, and how the existential and normative questions these value systems attempt to address would be better satiated through ecocentricism, minimalism, and existential contentment of a Taoist sort. But I recognize that these are merely my value judgments, not shared by all or even many, and so I strive to distance myself from ideological dogmatism, particularly from any shade of “ecofascism,” by humbly, yet confidently, grounding my positions in the empirical and in logic, cognizant primarily of the non-arbitrary biological preconditions necessary for life as we know it, while being especially cautious to avoid verging on the realm of arbitrary value judgments, for current norms about such arbitrary values demand (perhaps paradoxically so) strict pluralistic relativism.

But I resist the idea that politically prioritizing the ecosphere is categorically ideological, for where ideology can be irreconcilably divisive, the ecosphere fundamentally unifies human interests through our inherent organismic connectivity. To what extent this principle can or should be applied in terms of political priorities, however, is not a simple question, and when taken beyond protecting basic biological necessities, it becomes an ideological one. Such is the value latent project taken on by progressives, human rights activists, neoliberals, deep ecologists, radical environmentalists, industrialists, and the rest; each group relies on its own peculiar value hierarchy to arrive at a sense of purpose, of meaning, of belonging, and of proper social order, and it is precisely the propensity of these values to become irreconcilable that tempers my desire to join the ideological debate or pick a side.

Ideology is a strange thing – while the myriad of beliefs and value systems often give rise to conflict, it remains that humans have the common tendency to be ideological in the first place; we are the kinds of creatures that create ideologies to begin with. To which ideology one ascribes is ultimately a mere variable, for in the end we are unified by the very practice of ascription. The problem with ideology arises when we forget our underlying unification in being ideological beings. US policy actors must move beyond ideology in the environmental public sphere and attend to the empirical and the non-arbitrary, or at least embrace ideological coexistence rather than continuing to talk past each other’s value assumptions in pursuit of being exclusively “right,” for meanwhile, amidst our arguing, the oceans continue to acidify, climate continues to change, forests and biodiversity continue to disappear, and the capacity of the US government to mitigate these problems become progressively less suited for the task.

However, we should not be totally stricken with despair or frustration. The Rio+20 international commitments to sustainable energy are heartening, for at the core of our non-arbitrary environmental problems rests the human demand for energy, and so hope springs eternal. What remains to be seen is the transition from commitment to accomplishment, a process that always proves to be, at the very least, interesting. I am confident, because circumstances demand their own morality, that as ecological crises become more apparent, our value systems will naturally evolve to accommodate them. But I’m concerned that positive feedback cycles in the Earth systems will outpace our ideological reformation, and that, simply put, things will get worse before they get better. That, perhaps more than anything, is the problem with ideology.

JM Kincaid