Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Welcome to the first post at Demon-haunted World

Those of you who are Carl Sagan fans will, of course, recognize the homage in this blog's title. In many ways, Sagan is a hero of mine; for the way he managed to inspire public interest in science (despite having never said the apocryphal phrase "billions and billions"); for his talent as a writer and a scientist (
Contact remains one of my favourite books, and got a decent translation into film); and for his approach towards life and truth, an approach nicely captured in Ann Druyan's epilogue to Billions and Billions (emphasis mine):

"Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching."

In this spirit, the topics I hope to cover on this blog will be wide-ranging. I expect that there will be a heavy emphasis on climate change science, but I also expect to comment on issues related to biology, medicine, and religion. Since I'm currently a Ph.D. student in theoretical ecology, my goal is to provide a perspective on science "from the trenches" as it were.

Just recently, I changed my political affiliation on Facebook from "libertarian" to "data-driven". I still think that "libertarian" is the best one-word descriptor of my political views, but I've grown increasingly disenchanted with the views of people calling themselves libertarians these days. With the seeming implosion of the Republican party in the United States, it seems that libertarian is the new black (I'm referring to fashion, not skin color). Part of this is due to the Ron Paul phenomenon, which is in itself curious. Here you have a man who doesn't accept evolution, doesn't accept anthropogenic global warming, and endorses crank medicine. He's had questionable ties to white supremacist groups and right-wing militia groups. He plays up fears about conspiracies such as the North American Union. He's strongly anti-abortion, is disingenuous about his views on gay marriage, and believes that the American Constitution is "replete with references to God." Then there's his bizarre obsession with the Federal Reserve and fundamentalist obeisance to Austrian economics. This man is supposed to be leading a new Republican revolution? Sounds more like a whackjob theocrat in libertarian clothing to me.

But I digress. What does it mean to have a "data-driven" political viewpoint? Well, to take an idealistic view of politics, one could argue that the entire point of the political exercise is to ensure the smooth running of society and - even more idealistically - advance human civilization, or at least keep it from running off the rails. If this is the case, what's more important than blindly following a political ideology of liberalism, conservatism, or whatever variant happens to be the flavour-of-the-month, is to pursue policies that work. If the end result can be agreed upon - and, despite appearances, this isn't actually impossible (reducing crime, reducing pollution, alleviating poverty, etc.) - what should matter is whether the end result is actually achievable by a proposed policy, not whether it aligns with some idealistic political principle. For example, a typical "conservative" approach to reducing crime would be something like mandatory minimum sentencing, or seeking capital punishment. A typical "liberal" approach to reducing crime would be something like rehabilitation, community policing, and poverty reduction. In my view, the answer is irrelevant if it doesn't work to achieve what it sets out to do. I should clarify that I'm not advocating an "ends justifies the means" approach. What I'm advocating is a "means must be tested by the ends" approach. In this example, would I support capital punishment if there was solid evidence that it reduced crime (for the record, I'm not aware of any such data)? Probably not, because there's also ample evidence that the false-conviction rate (among other things) remains far too high for this solution to be justifiable.

In this regard, libertarians are capable of being just as guilty as anyone else, particularly when it comes to belief in free market infallibility. In fact, I fundamentally agree with one conservative's assessment that libertarianism is (or can be) the "Marxism of the right". Isn't it strange to call myself a libertarian on one hand, and disparage it on the other? To me, no. This sort of introspection and self-criticism is vitally important and far too rare in politics these days.

Inevitably, of course, people will always argue that the facts are on their side. Rarely, however, is this actually the case. This is where sound science and impartial analysis are so important. Despite the popular protestations of the American right, there is no "liberal" science or, for that matter, "conservative" science. There is only good science and bad science.

Now, if only we could train our politicians to recognize the difference.


  1. First!

    With that out of the way, I'll continue by saying I am very pleased that you've started a blog, and that I have read your antepenultimate paragraph twice and am still all at sea about what a data-driven political viewpoint is.

    I saw Carl Sagan's turtleneck on display at a museum a few months ago. It was navy blue, and the moths had nibbled on it. As he was one of your personal heroes, I thought you might find that fascinating.

  2. Jackie, I salute your use of the word antepenultimate. I will expound further on data-driven politics in future posts - I hope.

  3. Stephen: interestimg stuff. Having recently joined government and doing policy work I find myself struggling with these types of issues a fair bit. I'm not political philosopher, but you sound more like a utilitarian than a libertarian to me. I see utilitarianism as being results-oriented, but libertarianism as being value-driven, i.e., personal freedom trumps whether or not the outcome maximizes aggregate well-being. E.g., in economics, free markets maximize aggregate utility under certain conditions that are often/usually not met in the real world. A utilitarian accepts government intervention to attempt to correct the market failure, e.g., with regulation, taxes, whatever. I think a lot of libertarians would not care a whole lot about aggregate utility, or distribution of that utility -- they would only care that the govt doesn't infringe on the personal freedom that in their mind trumps all else.

    Looking forward to reading more here!

  4. Dale,

    I hope to expound more on my political philosophies in future posts, but you are right that what I've described so far sounds more utilitarian than libertarian. I think the reason I still consider myself a libertarian is that my utilitarianism is bounded by what I consider unreasonable limitations on personal freedoms (e.g., I would not find it acceptable for the government to stifle free speech even if data showed that doing so would result in greater social harmony).