Tiempos locos

Posted March 16th, 2008 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Living in Post-Normal Times

…a phrase often used to describe the weather in Guatemala, where I recently spent 3 weeks, mostly working on an ecosystem services case study that I will say more about when the report is done, and where local papers carried headlines about “Super Martes.” More than once I got to practice my Spanish answering questions about our dysfunctional elections. Had Comedy Central been among the cable channels, I might have just let Esteban Colberto explain it – but I did get to see Jon Stewart on the CNN international channel, making fun of CNN… Over one of the weekends, I also witnessed a few tourists roasting corn and marshmallows in the lava that is creeping down the slope of the Pacaya volcano, and learned that the country lies at the intersection of three colliding tectonic plates – both physically and metaphorically, i.e., in the political realm. The problems they face in the aftermath of a long civil war make our problems look mild in comparison. But they are not unrelated.

Before I left – after Sen. Obama made the Reagan comment – and Sen. Clinton took it out of context, I started writing a post I did not finish at the time because I was trying to put my finger more precisely on just what it was that changed under Reagan with respect to science and policy… a point I’ll come back to. Naomi Oreskes addresses that very nicely in this presentation (video link), which is well worth your time to watch if you haven’t already. But the key point was, and still is, that both Obama and Clinton missed the point about Reagan, and that the narrative of the Democratic party campaigns is going to have to change before we can change anything else. Which might even help break the current stalemate. For now, neither one is off the hook. I have generally refrained from blogging about the primary because we will need the combined talents of all of the candidates including those that who have dropped out and those who have stayed out (i.e., Gore – who I would still prefer over the leading contenders), and not just to win in November. So I offer this post in the spirit of constructive criticism. In case you need a reminder, here is the full Obama/Reagan quote:

What I’m saying is I think the average baby-boomers have moved beyond the arguments of the 60’s but our politicians haven’t. We’re still having the same argument… It’s all around culture wars and it’s all … even when you discuss war the frame of reference is all Vietnam. Well that’s not my frame of reference. My frame of reference is “what works.” Even when I first opposed the war in Iraq, my first line was I don’t oppose all wars, specifically to make clear that this is not an anti-military, you know, 70’s love-in kind of approach.

I think Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it. I think they felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating. I think people, he just tapped into what people were already feeling, which was we want clarity we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.

Obama was absolutely right that Reagan changed the American political trajectory, but it wasn’t by appealing to the center in some middle of the road chasm strategy. (Digby imagines a message equivalent to Obama’s as it might have been uttered by Reagan – it didn’t happen). During the 1980 presidential campaign, I learned, in a political science 101 class at GWU, that Reagan didn’t have a chance because, as the professor explained, in America, fringe candidates don’t win. It was just “common sense.” Appealing to the center is (or at least was), a time-honored tradition in American Politics. However, with a little help from the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan changed the rules, not by appealing to the center but by evoking nostalgia for an idyllic and simple past that never was, and by taking clear untriangulated positions that made solutions to complex and messy problems sound equally simple: the market will solve everything if the government just gets out of the way. His most recent employment had been as a motivational speaker. As it got closer to election day, “common sense” changed. The election day outcome would depend on the weather because Democrats are generally not energized enough to come out in the rain to vote. Rain or shine, Republicans are the ones who are there when the polls open. On that “mourning in America” it rained.

Like the weather, our elections have become more fickle ever since. Twelve long years later, President Clinton won by using a right wing frame of reference. Anything that might have previously been construed as the “center” was left in the wilderness, along with more diverse perspectives. And with that shift in political discourse, there was little context or frame or reference for anything his vice president or anyone else had to say about the climate – or any other messy and complex problem. As Frank Luntz once asked (in this recent Frontline interview “you tell me where global warming fits in on the more immediate issues – Iraq, Iran, terrorism, health care, prescription drugs, education…” It doesn’t. Lets call climate the context of the context.

Underlying this shift in political discourse was an equally profound shift in the science and policy relationship. As Naomi Oreskes points out in her lecture, there was a consensus on climate change in 1979 based on research developed over the previous 50 or so years. That consensus was also based on the conclusions of scientific committees made up of members who had served both Democratic and Republican administrations, as well as international scientific bodies, to which the establishment of the IPCC was a response.

Prior to that time, science was generally not a partisan enterprise, because it provided support and reinforcement for a mainstream political agenda for which there was general agreement, e.g., progress through industrialization, national security through weapons that provided the capacity for Mutually Assured Destruction, and efficient use of natural resources. But these did not come without trade-offs and political opposition. In other words, science was politicized in a different way in that it was used to support rather than to question established policies.

As I have discussed in earlier posts – throughout most of the 20th century, science for policy was largely confined to the deterministic and delusional frame of reference in which it was expected to enable the control of natural systems, provide certainty, and above all, provide justification for controversial decisions, for example, by determining “acceptable risk” even with unknown probabilities. This approach is rooted in the early part of the 20th century when, according to the environmental historian Samuel Hays, in his classic book on Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency – the state, now divorced from the church, looked to science to justify and legitimize controversial and inherently political decisions and centralization of authority in the face of the high social and economic conflicts over the large tradeoffs associated with industrialization (e.g., large dam construction and massive resource extraction). This gave rise to a scientific management approach, associated with the Progressive era conservation movement which viewed conservation in terms of planned and efficient progress. By defining issues surrounding resource use in narrow technical and utilitarian terms of maximum sustainable yield, it placed decisions in the hands of experts and scientific committees who could provide “correct answers”.

Hays characterized this as a denial by Theodore Roosevelt of the reality of social conflict and an attempt to develop “concepts and techniques which would, in effect, legislate that conflict out of existence” so as to return to an idyllic agrarian past that never really existed. This in turn minimized the political influence of “institutions which reflected the organized sentiment of local communities”, whose interests were considered only in order “to facilitate administration and to prevent… decisions from arousing too much resentment” — resulting in widespread social alienation. This is now generally recognized as sham public participation. Conveniently avoided were the messier problems of judgment under uncertainty as well as issues of equity in the distribution of costs, benefits, risks and uncertainties, that were merely shifted rather than reduced.

There are still those who have such expectations of science – but few of them are actually scientists. Although the frame remains a powerful one, the foundation of that narrative crumbled as a new generation of scientists began to investigate the consequences of using science to try to control the world, and moved away from a static towards a more dynamic view of the world.

Then Reagan got elected, which is when, according to Oreskes, scientific uncertainty began to be used as a political tactic. To summarize some of her key points – it was during Reagan’s administration, in 1984, that the George Marshall Institute was founded by a few physicists who had built their careers during the cold war – Robert Jastrow, along with William Nierenberg and Frederick Seitz who served on the board of directors. The initial purpose was to defend Reagan’s SDI or “Star Wars” initiative from scientific and political attacks by most other physicists who judged it to be technically dubious as well as politically destabilizing. In 1986, 6500 of them signed a statement in which they declared a boycott of program research funds. The initial goal of the Marshall Institute was to demonstrate that not all physicists were against the SDI program, by debating science in the media rather than in scientific forums, and demanding “balance” in media coverage. Ironically, although Reagan opposed and eventually dismantled the Fairness Doctrine as a form of government interference in markets, among the successful tactics of the Marshall Institute was to threaten lawsuits under the Fairness Doctrine if “one sided” programs were aired.

Until the end of the cold war, the Marshall Institute also focused on other cold war related programs: nuclear winter, seismic verification of the ban on underground nuclear tests, and the future of the space program. Then it turned its attention to an area in which it did not even have expertise, i.e., global warming, following what Oreskes calls “the tobacco strategy” of “keeping the controversy alive” by creating reasonable doubt. This was a program that actually began before the Reagan election. From 1975 to 1989, RJR Nabisco, the parent company of Philip Reynolds, invested $45 million in a program that Seitz directed after 1978, that identified and supported promising underfunded investigators who could back up those “doubts.” In “the tobacco strategy”, Seitz at least they tried to provide some form of rational justification for his claim that there was no evidence that 2nd hand smoke created a risk of lung cancer. Citing the 500 year old scientific notion of Paracelsus that “the dose makes the poison”, he dismissed the linear dose-response model because it did not address what might be the threshold value below which there would be no adverse effects. However he did not present any evidence of such a threshold.

In addition to claims of scientific uncertainty – that I have long argued only work because of the false expectations of scientific certainty created over the preceding century, global warming was also dismissed with claims that concerns are exaggerated, and that if it does turn out to be a problem, technology and markets will solve it, providing, of course, that the government does not interfere. What evidence I have seen suggests the opposite, but there is plenty of ink on that so I’m not going to begin to address that in this post. See the Oreskes lecture for more details on the evidence that already existed at that time, and predictions based on it that have since been confirmed.

Coming back to Obama’s Reagan remarks, what troubled me most was that he deepened a troubling narrative, that reinforces myths about the “excesses of the “60s and ‘70s” and about moving on from the fights of the ‘90s. As if the Clintons, and our current president, reflected the entire generation of baby boomers. This narrative probably has more to do with media hype than with the two leading Democratic candidates, both of whom seem to be smart people, who probably know all of this. But there must be people who believe this crap, which is only reinforced by their campaign talk. To be fair, Obama seems to have moved on a bit himself – to evoking Kennedy – perhaps having learned something, and/or perhaps realizing that boomers vote too.

First of all, it would be great if we could all just get along, but partisan conflicts go back much farther than the 1990s, or even the 1960s, the New Deal and the Magna Carta. The current administration has indeed taken aim at all of those as well as the US Constitution. Second, if, as Obama says, most have moved on from what he calls the bickering of the ’60s and ’90s (or whenever else), it is not from merely getting beyond or magically transcending those conflicts but because we are now in the age of consequences of past attempts to control complex natural systems, and have new kinds of problems to face. Had Reagan not been elected, we would be much further along in addressing such consequences, e.g., climate change. As for entrepreneurship, I personally know two people who were entrepreneurs in what was a nascent renewable energy business who were forced to change careers as Reagan cut all R&D funding for it, took Carter’s solar panels off of the White House, and brought in the likes of James Watt, etc etc etc. Since it was before the internet era, all he had to do to prevent information from getting out of some of the agencies was to cut the maintenance contracts for photocopying machines. If some Democrats recall Reagan with a bit of nostalgia it is only because at least he did much of this in the light of day rather than in obscure signing statements and initiatives with nice-sounding but deceptive titles. The current administration doesn’t even bother to try to justify their decisions with anything other than spin and deception. Without Habeas Corpus, I don’t know why they even bother  to do that. (Just some obscure legal text that once provided safeguards against arbitrary imprisonment and insured a right to a trial by jury – without which all other rights established in the United States Constitution are hypothetical, as is the need for public policies to be justified with any kind of evidence or rational argument.)

As for Guatemala and elsewhere in developing countries, as seen in the film “Charlie Wilson’s War” regarding Afghanistan, a post-cold war reconstruction is a hard sell after a series of proxy wars conducted or supported in secret, but we could go a long way towards achieving that by addressing climate change in ways that also reduce poverty.  And now, I have just arrived in Italy for a meeting related to another project that aims to do precisely that, and that I’ll blog more on in the future, when it is more formally launched. Being here will also give me an opportunity to meet with Silvio Funtowicz over breakfast in the morning. Stay tuned.

2 Responses to “Tiempos locos”

  1. John Mashey says:

    re: Naomi’s video
    Myanna Lahsen has written a nice related paper about the George C. Marshall “trio”:
    “Experiences of modernity in the greenhouse: A cultural analysis of a physicist ”trio” supporting the backlash against global warming”
    h/t Bigcitylib

  2. David Harley says:

    I consider the Bush regime’s inroads into civil liberties appalling, but it should be noted that both Lincoln and FDR dispensed with habeas corpus, and various other rights.
    We haven’t got to the point of rounding up Arab-Americans or Muslims and interning them for the duration, until the War on Abstract Nouns ends with an absolute surrender.

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