Climate Change: What is it? Who can you trust? Is it that bad?

Who exactly can you trust when it comes to climate science? In her 2010 keynote speech at the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Science, Evelyn Fox Keller called upon scientists and philosophers of science to engage the public in critical discourse regarding the issue of climate change. She claimed that scientists and HPS’ers (those that study history and philosophy of science), who are best suited to talk about the myriad of complex issues surrounding the subject, have traditionally been reluctant to take their expertise into the mainstream. This blog post, the first in an ongoing series, is designed to answer Fox Keller’s challenge.

As the introductory blog in the series, this entry will be an overview of the multifaceted scientific and political challenges that climate change poses. My goal here is somewhat modest. Simply put, in this post I want to give the basic background needed to enter into a discussion on climate change. Please use the comments section to ask questions about this information. If you already know this information, skip right down to the comments section and ask a question about climate science that you don’t know the answer to. I’ll respond, and maybe even answer it!…

Should we ease the regulation of genetically engineered crops?

Rice genetically engineered to produce β-carotene (provitamin A) was named golden rice because of its distinctive golden colour.

Ingo Potrykus, chairman of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and one of the developers of the genetically engineered (GE) crop golden rice, writes that he holds the strict regulation of GE crops responsible “for the death and blindness of thousands of children and young mothers.” [Potrykus, Ingo. Nature Vol 466, 29 July 2010. p 561]. In an opinion piece published in the July 29th, 2010 edition of the journal Nature, Potrykus argues that the existing regulation of genetically engineered crops is pushing their development into the hands of private industry and is stifling the creation of varieties geared toward humanitarian aid by the public sector.

Potrykus is one of the developers of the genetically engineered crop called golden rice, which is designed to produce the precursors to vitamin A (β-carotene) in its endosperm. Wild-type rice varieties produce β-carotene in their green tissues, but not in the portions that are consumed by humans.  Golden rice was designed to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency – which can lead to loss of eyesight and eventually death—by engineering a rice variety that produces β-carotene in consumable rice grain.

Golden rice has met with regulatory challenges since its inception. Having been successfully developed in 1999, Potrykus does not believe the crop will be approved for use until 2012 – nearly 15 years after it was ready to leave the lab. Without overhauling the existing regulatory systems – which include everything from patents to field trial approvals – Potrykus fears other humanitarian crops, including golden cassava, golden banana, as well as iron-zinc,-and-protein-rich rice will be condemned to the same fate as golden rice, ready to help but prevented from doing so.

So, what do you think? Are the current controls over GE crops too tight? Should regulatory approvals be eased for the public sector? As always, it’s debatable.…

Weekly Roundup

Tom Peace at ActiveHistory writes about public engagement in archaeology. Of particular interest is the public archaeology program at Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Site that encourages active participation in digs.

Nature and Scientific American report on their global survey on attitudes towards science and scientists (also here) which purports to investigate cultural differences among “scientifically literate” respondents from various countries, and suggests (surprise!) that being scientifically informed does not necessarily mean sharing scientists’ views.

Andrew Dobson at openDemocracy weighs in on what makes a good climate-change novel. (Hint: “There must be lots of weather – preferably wild and wet.”)

iRobot: People now telecommute by robot.

Wildlife filmmaker and producer Chris Palmer spills the beans about widespread industry fakery in a new tell-all book; despite our continued trust in nature shows, by now this should come as no surprise.…

Is Sam Harris on to something? Can science answer moral questions?

Near the end of his wildly popular 1975 tome, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O. Wilson declared that it was time for biologists to, at least temporarily, take over the study of ethics from the likes of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls.1 In Philip Kitcher’s classic reply, he identified four ways biology could possibly inform ethics. The first is that science could just explain how people come to accept ethical principles and make ethical judgements. The fourth is that science can be a source of ethical principles: science can tell us how we ought to behave.2

Wilson, at least in Sociobiology, could be read as merely arguing for the first way, which isn’t very controversial. However, Kitcher, considering Wilson’s further work, argued that Wilson actually endorsed all four ways. This interpretation makes sense given that Wilson wanted biology to take over ethics, not just contribute to its study. As far as I am aware, most philosophers agree with Kitcher, following David Hume, that the fourth way is simply not possible. Nothing we could ever conceivably learn from biology could inform us about which fundamental ethical principles we ought to adopt.

Now, 35 years after Wilson, we have Sam Harris:

  1. E.O. Wilson. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975) pp. 562-4.
  2. Philip Kitcher. “Four Ways of Biologicizing Ethics” in Conceptual Issues in Evolutionary Biology, Elliot Sober, ed. (1993).

    Kitcher’s four ways:

    1. Sociobiology has the task of explaining how people have come to acquire ethical concepts, to make ethical judgements about themselves and others, and to formulate systems of ethical principles.

    2. Sociobiology can teach us facts about human beings that, in conjunction with moral principles that we already accept, can be used to derive normative principles that we have not yet appreciated.

    3. Sociobiology can explain what ethics is all about and can settle traditional questions about the objectivity of ethics. In short, sociobiology is the key to metaethics.

    4. Sociobiology can lead us to revise our system of ethical principles, not simply by leading us to accept new derivative statements—as in number 2 above—but by teaching us new fundamental normative principles. In short, sociobiology is not just a source of facts but a source of norms.

The battle for hearts, minds… and stomachs

A series on the historical, philosophical, and scientific foundations of the GM crop debate.

Heralded as both the cause and the solution of the world’s food production problems, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, have become a hotly debated topic since they were first approved for use and human consumption in North America in the mid-1990s. The poles of the debate include staunch advocates of GM crops and environmental dissenters: large agribusinesses, such as Monsanto, who argue for the safety and utility of GMOs, and organizations such as Greenpeace International who maintain that the threat posed by GMOs is unprecedented and must be avoided at all costs. Ad campaigns, activist rallies, and glossy brochures abound in defense of each position.

In the midst of this debate it is easy to get lost in a mass of scary hypotheses, burdensome statistics, and confusing scientific terms. Yet, basic issues are left painfully undiscussed: what does it mean for a crop to be ‘genetically modified’ (is genetic modification a problem? If so, why?); what is the historical place of GMOs in agriculture (aren’t all crops ‘genetically modified’?); what is the role of private corporations in their production and distribution (are GMOs produced by evil multi-national corporations bent on world domination?); and what are the intellectual property structures that influence the creation of GMOs (you can patent a plant?).…

Weekly Roundup

Anthony Gottlieb writes on (via) what philosophers of science call the “pessimistic induction“, scientists’ unwillingness to acknowledge fallibility, and what we should make of it.

Paul B. Thompson challenges the “standard narrative” of GE crops, which claims they were uncontroversially accepted in the United States but faced vigorous opposition in Europe.

Kalman Applbaum has a review of Carl Elliott’s White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine, which centers on interviews of disillusioned pharmaceutical industry researchers.

Roger Pielke, Jr. discusses a recent study on how people react to experts and scientific consensus based on “cultural considerations”.

Margaret Munro reports on the Canadian government’s “muzzling” of scientists.

Billionaires from Kansas bankroll effort to derail greenhouse gas legislation in California.…

Politicizing Macroeconomic Policy

A strong and sustainable global recovery needs to be built on balanced global demand. Significant weaknesses exist across G-20 economies. I am concerned by weak private sector demand and continued heavy reliance on exports…. Our ability to achieve a durable global recovery depends on our ability to achieve a pattern of global demand growth that avoids the imbalances of the past…. In some countries, strengthening social safety nets would help boost low levels of consumption. In others, product and labor market reforms could strengthen both consumption and investment. I also want to underscore that market-determined exchange rates are essential to global economic vitality.

This excerpt from President Obama’s letter to his G-20 colleagues ahead of the summit highlights many of the themes that global financial leaders discuss at such gatherings, but it is also notable for its tone of scientific certitude. There are readily identifiable characteristics of poorly functioning economies (“weak private sector demand”, “heavy reliance on exports”, “low levels of consumption”), and specific policy interventions that will cure these problems (“strengthening social safety nets”, “product and labor market reforms”, “market-determined exchange rates”). Fixing economies, in this view, is much like fixing a car. Take your car to the best mechanic you can find, and he or she will identify and correct the problem. Take your economy to the best economist you can find, and he or she will—in just the same way—identify and correct the problem. So how do we find the best economist for the job? It turns out that this isn’t so easy.…

Climate Change: Should We Speak of Consensus?

In a recent lecture, Naomi Oreskes, a distinguished historian of science from the ‎University of California, San Diego, has argued that there is and has been a scientific ‎consensus that human-caused global warming is occurring. She persuasively shows that the ‎sceptical claims about human-caused global warming have not originated from within ‎the scientific community, but rather from politically motivated external ‎actors who, consciously and one would even say cynically, have been artificially ‎manufacturing controversy on the subject.‎

What are we, however, to make of this claim? On its own, the existence of a scientific ‎consensus does not indicate that the consensus view is correct. Oreskes does have a ‎point about the consensus being initially shared by people of different political views. But ‎it seems that for her – in this lecture at least – politics affect only one side of the debate. ‎Doesn’t it need to be shown that, at least once the climate debate became politicized, ‎similar political influences have not affected the other side as well?‎


The Bubble Chamber – a place for thinking about science and society

Bubble chamber at Fermilab
Bubble chamber at Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory ©Bruce Marlin

In the 1950s and 60s, bubble chambers were cutting-edge scientific apparatuses for physical researchers in North America.  One of the first large-scale devices created to observe the interaction of charged particles, bubble chambers were novel and highly-intricate feats of engineering.  Their realization required hundreds of different kinds of specialists to apply their knowledge in new, integrated ways.  The various specialized bits of knowledge possessed by these specialists, along with their attendant crafts and technologies, all took on new applications and orientations in their common endeavour to construct bubble chambers, a task ultimately aimed at providing an experimental basis for modern particle physics.

Because bubble chambers were constructed by the mutually reinforcing intellectual collaboration of a variety of different specialists, bubble chambers serve as a nice metaphor for what we hope to achieve with this blog.  The Bubble Chamber is run by a group of historians and philosophers of science whose interests and specializations vary widely, giving us all an opportunity to learn from each other and integrate our knowledge in new and fruitful ways.  Our main hope for the blog, however, is that it will find readers from outside our academic disciplines.  The idea is that we, as historians and philosophers of science, can create new applications for our specialized knowledge by bringing it to bear on social, political, and policy issues of general interest in ways that engage with a variety of people, from the general public to business people to working scientists.  We hope to find such applications because we believe our society as a whole could do with a better, more nuanced understanding of science and its place in our modern world.  To develop such an understanding, we all need to find new, integrated ways of bringing our specialized knowledge and experience together.  This blog will be a forum for such intellectual cross-pollination and collaboration, where a wide variety of people can be exposed to the socially relevant work of historians and philosophers of science, and vice versa.…

Can evolutionary principles help us explain behavioural differences between men and women, and if so, to what degree?

Historians and philosophers of science engaged in evolutionary thinking, along with several evolutionary biologists, are sometimes suspicious of two purportedly scientific disciplines: evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.  Since the “scientific status” of these disciplines is, in particular, a favorite issue for many of us at The Bubble Chamber, it seemed appropriate to make it the topic of our first “debatable” post.  The post itself grows out of material recently taught by Vivien Hamilton in one of her courses at Toronto’s IHPST.  The idea behind “debatable” posts is that we will outline a contestable topic that readers will carry forward in the comments section; so please, feel obliged to take issue with anything in this post that you disagree with, and to address any aspect of the issues raised, in the comments section.…