Sunday, February 28, 2010

Water and Wrenches, Belts and Suspenders: A rational approach to exploring Mars & Beyond

Someday, Earth civilization will send emissaries to Mars. Over the long run, the task of exploration cannot be left only to robots. If we are ever to know Mars from a human perspective we must have eyes on the ground, feet in the soil. People offer unbeatable advantages of intelligence and adaptability. But getting to Mars and other deepspace destinations with crews of living men and women won't be easy.

Among the many obstacles we must overcome are the immense cost of such an expedition and the need to ensure a much higher, almost-guaranteed probability of success. Mission designers must overcome major technical issues along with barriers both physiological and mental. A detailed plan will include procedures for orbital transfer, landing, performing science and returning to Earth. These problems will take years - likely decades - to resolve.

And yet, it turns out that some fundamentals are still the same as they were when Shackleton and Amundsen probed the Antarctic, or Hillary and Tenzig took on Everest. All of them fretted about one thing, above all. Supplies, supplies, supplies.

Ninety percent of the time, energy and expense of those exploration treks went into laying down caches of necessities. Doing so properly ensured survival when it finally came time for the blitz to the summit or pole. Failure to get it right helped doom the ill-fated Scott Antarctic Expedition. When we send human crews to Mars, we would do well to remember this and provide what they need, without scrimping, well in advance.

In fact, prudence suggests that we not even launch the human components of a Mars expedition until at least twice as many consumables are already there on site, both orbiting the planet and on the surface, as they would need, even if accidents happen.

(Note that the Apollo moon landings do not fit into this pattern, because they were essentially sprints toward a much closer objective.  More like Lindbergh than Amundsen.)

DestinationMarsAs it turns out, this kind of advance-provisioning needn't delay matters at all. It will take many years, or decades, to design, critique, and build the manned components. Meanwhile, the greater bulk of material needed by any expedition will be almost completely design independent. Water and food. Wrenches and other basic tools. Supplementary maneuvering fuels like hydrazine. Shovels, microscopes and sampling bags. These will be needed, whether the explorers travel by rocket or railroad.  Moreover, these "general" supplies make up a great part of the mass of any expedition.

What this means is that we should undertake provisioning a Mars expedition long before the human crew is launched -- possibly even before any specific mission design is decided-upon! In fact, this can be turned into a great advantage. Making such a distinction -- between bulk, mission-nonspecific supplies and high value mission-specific cargoes, will have special significance if time can be traded for energy and money.

 Are there alternative methods of transport that are inherently cheaper -- if slower -- than the standard, rocket-driven "Hohmann" interplanetary transfer orbit? If so, and given a decade's advance notice, bulk cargoes might be conveyed to Mars by the cheapest methods possible.  A slow journey and long term storage won't damage water or wrenches or TV dinners.  Only when such stuff is plentifully cached at Phobos, or some other convenient marshaling site, would it make sense to send human beings and their expensive, mission-specific gear, the landers and scientific instruments, by quick and costly means.

Are such methods available? On paper, it seems possible to trade time for cheap transfer with methods like ion propulsion or solar sails. Finding out if such systems can be efficiently scaled up to propel many-ton cargoes ought to be given high priority. If such experiments (delayed fifty years, in the case of photon sails went well, then it could make sense to start sending bulk supplies as soon as possible... possibly even during the next decade. If the bulk transport system were efficient enough, this approach might have considerable impact on reducing costs of a manned expedition, and/or padding in an extra safety margin.

2012605363Note also that even without slow-but-efficient solar powered transport, a standard rocket-driven transfer to Mars can still be made much cheaper, simply by hiring out the job of ferrying water and wrenches to the lowest commercial bidder, without the bureaucracy or nitpicking care required for human-rated vehicles. If a cargo of Spam and Gatorade goes astray, you shrug and send another.

Early caching of general-use supplies will also have important implications for the design-specific components -- the part of the mission having to do with actually transporting people to Mars orbit, then to-from the surface. Every gram of material that was sent previously, by slow-freighter, will not have to be carried on the crewed vessel -- thus also freeing up several more grams of fuel to transport it. Anything that lightens the crew transfer vehicle may make it both less expensive and easier to optimize for people-specific goals, like minimizing radiation exposure, or getting the explorers there fast. True, there are limits to our ability to speed-up a Hohmann Transfer Trajectory, with simple chemical rockets. Still, there are possibilities that are powerfully leveraged if the ship is optimized to convey people -- and only people.

Consider an additional attractive feature. After the first few robot freighters arrive at the cache and are roboticaly verified to be in good condition, the mere existence of such a cache will serve as a psychological draw, a palpable on-site investment, already-made, helping to emotionally commit citizens to back the final push, sending an exploration crew. Call it cancellation insurance. Note also that the first expedition probably would not use up all the supplies that were cached for it. Hence, a substantial amount of left-over material would serve as a draw for us to send a next-followup mission... a canny, added benefit to this approach.

CaseForMarsSome additional technologies are compatible and also needed, for example those leading to Zubrin-style in situ propellant production facilities -- robotic factories that might be landed on either Mars or Phobos -- or both -- and put to work using local materials (e.g. carbonaceous volatiles, ices, or atmospheric CO2) to manufacture rocket fuel for the return trip. Aside from providing a new margin of safety, this will save vastly on transport costs, since fuel for the return voyage needn't be transported from Earth.

Again, the human crew would not even depart from home until mission control verified the existence of this cache, in advance. (The possibility that Phobos might contain such accessible/usable volatiles makes it potentially one of the most valuable sites in the solar system, which means that the upcoming Russian Grunt Phobos mission is a really important one, in our near future.)

Our key point here? The crucial enabling steps that humanity will need, before embarking on our long and careful plan to send humans to Mars, are not mission specific ones -- like the nature of the crew or landing craft. Nor do they even require full-scale political commitment for the entire grand project. We need not wait for the study commissions to create glossy reports and billion-dollar blueprints.

Rather, what's called for right now is to start looking into which technologies can deliver the boring stuff, e.g. the groceries and tools, to Mars in a manner that gets this vital provisioning task done efficiently and most-cheaply. If such methods are found, then at a relatively modest expenditure, NASA or some consortium of nations could begin launching advance supply ships to orbit Mars and establish a cache.

What this notion does is turn our disappointment at the glacial pace of manned exploration into an advantage. If that slow pace is acted upon and taken advantage of, then the resulting cost savings and extra safety margins might even be enough to help bring the eventual manned mission into being!

Fortunately, the first, enabling steps are simple, inexpensive, logical... and would make sense to any of our explorer forebears.

(See the original version of this essay at the site for SIGMA, the consulting group for science fiction authors. I want to thank Bud Sparhawk, Catherine Asaro, Arlan Andrews and Tom Ligon for their help in creating this Sigma editorial.)


After fifty years, at last, solar sail experiments.

In-situ propellant production on Mars:

Russian "Grunt" Phobos mission:

Friday, February 26, 2010

Predictions, Podcasts and the Future

Inventor Nathan Myhrvold, of Intellectual Ventures, recently unveiled a mosquito death ray -- part of a plan to eradicate malaria, funded by Bill Gates. Using a Blu-ray playe’s laser and a laser printer’s fast-moving mirror, controlled by a sensor that measures wingbeat frequency and size the of flying insect and decide whether it is worth killing.

earthSound familiar? Writes tech pundit Jamais Cascio: “Okay David, so it's mosquitos and not killer bees, but I'll give this EARTH prediction to you anyway.” (Aw man... how many of these do I need, before people gimme respek? I mean sheet, I got a better record than Sterling, Doctorow an’ all dose guys combine! Sigh. ;-)

While we’re at it... see progress toward Tru-View Goggles (shown in my novel EARTH).

And another predictions registry item... people looking hard for the last remaining “quiet places” on Earth. (Forecast in my novel of that name.) Doug Moran suggests that “you should consider releasing a 25th anniversary edition of "Earth" in 2015 (when we're halfway there), with an afterward that talks about things that have happened.”

Another prediction from EARTH (1992) -- Tidal power is taking off, in Europe. (Now a further prediction. These “snakes” will also be designed to stir bottom mud and fertilize currents. )

See a list of predictive hits (and misses) from Earth at:

Speaking of predictions, see my classic article about Psi and telepathy and precognition and all that: Parapsychology and the need to believe in a new transcendence

Jamais Cascio and Mike Treder hold a fascinating conversation about environmental ethics. See Jamais work out the fact that each big cheesburger results in the emission of 4.5 kilograms of greenhouse gas! (From farmers' fuel to fertilizer to cattle farts to transport etc.) Leading to about 20 million tons of co2 coming from America from just the cheeseburgers it eats. (I don't think he included the resulting human farts.)

President Obama’s new space plan offers a huge boost to commercial space operations, including manned flight. Exactly what all my libertarian buds have said they wanted, for ages. Watch. He’ll still be called a socialist. (On the other hand, Buzz Aldrin was wonderfully cogent in arguing for an approach that the President seems to have adopted, whole cloth.


See a “One Minute Critic” summarize KILN PEOPLE.

LifeAfterPeopleYou can catch a clip of me on History Channel’s Life After People. You may have to actually paste in this address:

The Age of Amateurs pushes forward. How crowdsourcing is helping in Haiti. This article discusses how (mostly) volunteer response in other countries helped (and still is, to a degree) the ground based workers.

I’ve posted a couple of education-related pages. Science Fiction that Teaches.

Movies for Teaching Science.

Learn about Solar Probe Plus, a planned mission to study the Sun with a brave probe from near distances where it will appear 23 times wider than it does in the skies of Earth. I have been asked to be a sort of honorary “inspirational consultant” member of the team, Among the mysteries to be studied are the origins of the solar wind and the reasons for the superheated temperatures of the corona, which reach more than a million degrees. As a former solar astronomer myself, and author of Sundiver, I’ll be pleased to help in any way. Read more.

This covers the nitty-gritty of using Hexayurts in Haiti. It's a research doc, but has good, clear descriptions of the cleverness required to put together a cheap shelter that stands some chance in a serious storm. Pass it on, they're going to need it.

A fun - if long-winded - take-down of the Star Wars prequels. Makes the same point that I did, years ago... that The Phantom Menace has no hero. None at all, and during Lucas’s “Joseph Campbell Period!” Hilarious.

READ this very informative article about how easy it is to subpoena web records and find out about your identity, if you post anything anonymously defaming. Of course there’s

Foundation“Krugman explained that he’d become an economist because of science fiction. When he was a boy, he’d read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy and become obsessed with the central character, Hari Seldon.”

I tried to reach Krugman and offer him a copy of FOUNDATION’S TRIUMPH, which ties together ALL of Isaac’s loose ends... but could not get through his protective layers with the message. If any of you happen to be within two degrees of separation and care to pass on a message...?

=== SCIENCE!! ===

Son of Big Dog... the Army will deploy Boston Dynamics robo-mule for a test in less than 3 years.

Betty Jones has posted a list-link to “100 Eye-Opening Lectures on the Future of Engineering” - quite a compilation and well worth several impulse clicks.

A fascinating Youtube about mythbusting Climate Change assertions.

Fun engineering games.

In less than one billionth of a second, plants transform 95 percent of the sunlight that falls on them into energy stored chemically as carbohydrates. The quantum key to doing that lies in a phenomenon known to physicists as quantum coherence, where more than one molecule interacts with the same energy from one incoming photon at the same time.

Is the solar-system sized bubble in the Consellation Cygnus a planetary nebulae or could it be an "AC" or astroengineering construction, also known as a Dyson sphere? (Sigh, obviously the former.)

Scientists have found a striking similarity in the DNA that enables some bats and dolphins to echolocate.

Connecting the dots in algae-to-fuel!

Calling all Hugo Award voters. Podcasts are now allowed! Have a look and then try some of the casts from Glasgow’s “Starship Sofa.” (including some stories of mine!) Consider for Best Fanzine.

And now that's done. Phew! Now please forgive me if I stay mostly off of the comments section for a while....

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Primer on Supply-Side vs Demand-Side Economics

Russ Daggatt's latest missive discusses whether the Stimulus Bill has had good effects.  His analysis is well worth perusing... and spreading the link.

My own take on things is more abstract. So let's step back and examine how Democrats and Republicans have become identified with two quite opposite economic theories. We'll start with the Republicans, who still clasp fealty to Supply Side Economics (SSE), a theory once labeled "voodoo" by the elder George Bush, but now mainstream conservative catechism for three decades.


Supply Side holds that you best stimulate economic activity by Increasing the net wealth possessed by society's top echelons -- people and groups who have no urgent material needs.  Instead of spending it on direct "demand" purchases, these wealth-owners will invest any marginal wealth-gain (say from tax cuts) on things that increase "supply" -- factories, new businesses, innovative goods and services.  Thus the name Supply-Side. 

Interestingly, the most famous proponent of this approach was Karl Marx, who maintained that the owner-capitalist class propels industrial development by re-investing profits in plants and equipment, thus building up society's capital stock and the means of production. SSE is, in that respect, an entirely Marxist theory.

Of course, Marx then looked farther ahead.  He hypothesized an eventual "completion" of this capital-formation process, a final phase when all the factories are finished - an image we now find ludicrous, since productive capacity must be updated at an accelerating pace. (Hence there will always be a need for capitalists.)  Still, it seems kind of sad that SSE supporters won't ever acknowledge this fundamental root of their theory. They do not study their ideological forebear. Nor do they try, as Marx did, to extrapolate where their prescription may eventually lead.

But let's examine the key SSE predictions. (All theories should make confident predictions that are clearcut and testable.) For thirty years we have heard Supply Side zealots forecast that reducing taxes on the rich will:

1) result in direct investment of the released wealth into "supply" capacity for producing innovative goods and services.

2) stimulate so much new economic activity that even lower tax rates will rake in enough new revenue to erase any deficit caused by reducing taxes on the rich.

3) eliminate government debt, resolving any apparent conflict between reducing revenue and fiscal responsibility.


This lengthy definition is needed understand why a credibility deficit now burdens the Republican Coalition.  All through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, the mantra was:

- if the federal budget is in deficit, cut taxes on the rich, in order to repair that deficit.

- if the federal budget is in surplus, cut taxes on the rich, because it's their money, not the government's, and there will henceforth be no rainy days.

- in times of peace, cut taxes on the rich, because government has lower priority in peacetime.

- in times of war, cut taxes on the rich, because...
well, this one never made sense even by conservative logic. Indeed, this was the first time in US history that the clade of uber-wealth demanded ever-increasing state largesse even while the nation was under deadly threat.

In any event, we must admit that the core demand of SSE believers has been utterly consistent. Reducing taxes on the uber-wealthy is good for America, across all circumstances, under all conditions and without limit.


book-cover-krugmanFor three decades, SSE proponents told skeptics "just watch and see what will happen!"  (Whenever top tax rates were cut.)  Okay, we've watched. And absolutely every large-scale forecast made by promoters of Supply Side Economics failed -- diametrically -- without major exception.

The uber-rich did not take their tax-break largesse and invest it in innovative/productive equipment.  They poured it into either passive investments -- what Adam Smith derided as "rent-seeking" -- or else risky financial instruments and asset bubbles.  Above all, the direct forecast that reduced revenues would erase federal deficits went directly opposite to observed fact.


The one period over which deficits decisively vanished came right after Bill Clinton got moderate increases in taxation on the rich, in 1993, followed by stringent pay-as-you-go budgetary management. What we saw then was a combination of budget balancing, strong economic activity and revenue-based debt reduction.

So now let's examine the competitive theory - Demand Side Economics (DSE)... also called modified-Keynsianism.

Named for long-ago FDR advisor John Maynard Keynes, this theory holds that economic activity is driven by demand for goods and services. Moreover, money in the hands of the middle and lower classes has greater inherent VELOCITY -- meaning that a given dollar will be spent and then re-spent more often, if the middle class is passing it around with sequential purchases, than if it is stockpiled in a rich person's portfolio.

(Mind you, by this theory, tax cuts for the rich might actually make sense when rapid inflation in an overheated economy calls for decreased monetary velocity!  I never said that such cuts are NEVER called for. Indeed, JFK's tax cuts did achieve all of its intended goals.)

Under Keynsian or Demand-Side theory, the government should spend heavily, even deep into debt, when the nation is in recession, in order to get high-velocvity economic activity going again.  Hence the recent surge in stimulus activity, in the first year of the Obama administration (see Daggatt's article)... in sharp contrast to the equal-scale "stimulus" measures taken in the last year of George W. Bush's term, most of which went to shoring up the positions of those at the top of the social-economic order.

Now, to a person who genuinely despises all deficit spending, both SSE and DSE methods may seem horrific.  Both claim to use deficits and state-largesse to stimulate the economy, under a notion that economic activity will thereupon surge ahead and resulting revenues will later erase the incurred debt.  Only there are some truly major differences.

1) Demand-Side (Keynsian) deficit spending goes to where each dollar will have high velocity impact, as their theory predicts. In contrast, Supply Side largesse for the rich definitely did NOT go into predicted capital formation. (Marx was wrong.) It simply made the rich richer.

2) Completely aside from macro-economic effects, the beneficiaries of Demand Side largesse - the poor and middle class - may have some actual direct need. Fulfilling that need (if done well) may result in creation of either more-skilled workers or more small businesses. In contrast, it is hard to see how Supply Side sends the money to a place (the rich) where a direct need merits government intervention.

3)  Supply Side is a monotone.  "Give money to the rich under ALL circumstances, at all times and conditions, no matter what.

In contrast, Keynsians have proved that their policy is adaptable and variable, un-dogmatic and contingent upon circumstance.  They spend lavishly in order to get out of recession, because that is what Keynsians do. (Right-wing rants and rails against the current governing party acting consistently with its own economic theory is simply hypocritical.  You had your turn, now it is theirs.)

But the 1990s prove that Democrats have credibility for being situationally flexible.  When a recession ends, they spend more cautiously, remove the largesse, and start building up savings. In fact, had Bush continued the Clintonian policy of debt buy-down in good times, a considerable reserve fund would have been available to help us ride out the present crisis.

4) The experts -  professionals who have actually spent their lives studying this difficult field - generally despise Supply Side Economics. That may seem a good thing from the perspective of those who increasingly call expertise a disqualifying trait. From contempt for the Civil Service and the US Officer Corps to distrust of universities and the climate experts who have achieved miracles in weather forecasting, it's become clear that one side in our tragic, debilitating "culture war" does not want to hear the professionals on any matter, least of all economics.

.Economy5) In fact the situation is not entirely black and white! Keynsianism has had its failures. Economics is a dismal "science" and Demand-Side has many problems dealing with a complex economy.  Furthermore, pre-Clintonian Democrats sometimes acted as if the law of gravity did not apply. That potential always lurks on the left (witness Greece, today.) Moreover, Democrats did play some (lesser) role in the unleashing of our recent Asset Bubble.

Nevertheless, Keynsianism has a long, eighty-year record of being right in the most general sense.

Government should outspend its revenues in recession, directing high-velocity stimulus toward the middle class.  Then, in good times, it should use adequate revenues to build up reserves.  The Pharoahs knew this. It is even in the Biblical story of Joseph.  It is common sense.

What does not make sense is to hold fast to an alternative "voodoo" theory - Supply Side Economics - that has always and universally failed in every major prediction, after being tried repeatedly for three decades.

A theory that is quasi-Marxist, in that it openly aims to propel the rise of an all-powerful aristocracy of wealth in exactly the manner that Marx prophesied, taking us toward the sort of class divisions that had old Karl chortling and rubbing his hands, murmuring "Yessss!"

== Addendum November 2012  R.I.P. "supply side economics" ==

Only... in that context take this proof of what I've long held. The blatant fact that Supply Side economics has never been true. In a November 1 report we learn that that Senate Republicans applied pressure on the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) in September to withdraw a report finding that lowering marginal tax rates for the wealthiest Americans had no effect on economic growth or job creation

"The pressure applied to the research service comes amid a broader Republican effort to raise questions about research and statistics that were once trusted as nonpartisan and apolitical," the Times reported. Democrats in Congress resurfaced the report. Republicans objected that it underminde the governing fiscal philosophy of the party, that tax cuts for the wealthy will spur growth and benefit everybody.

Changes over 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains rate do not correlate with economic growth. Reduction in top rates appears to be uncorrelated with saving, investment, and productivity growth. However, top rate reductions do associate with increasing divergence of national income going to the top 0.1%

This is important... and was always obvious.  Even in 1776 Adam Smith described what the rich actually do with sudden cash infusions. They put it to work in "passive rent seeking" and only rarely into capital equipment or risky new products and services. (Risk taking can be rewarded in other ways.) And that cash flow to the rich reduces the velocity of money. If there were ever a time not to do that, it is during a recession, when we want high money velocity, put cash in middle class pockets! (In fairness, during runaway inflation, largesse to the rich - reducing money velocity - actually makes some sense.) 

George H.W. Bush called Supply Side "voodoo economics. It was and is.

See more articles on The Economy: Past, Present and Future

Friday, February 12, 2010

An addendum on "The Fall of Civilizations"

The previous posting is still the "main" one that I'd like to be sure people see... I certainly worked hard enough on it. Still, over the next few days I have a few final addenda to add....

We appear to be at a cusp point, where the Western World chooses between two paths.

One is the trail of stupidity, leading to a cliff.  Almost 100 years ago, in The Decline of the West, Ozwald Spengler transfixed the public with his certain-sounding explanations for why Europo-American society would soon dissolve into pain and despair, decadence and dust.

Pain came... dealt by people who believed as Spengler did. A cult of cynicism despised the Enlightenment. Monsters of both left and right saw as degenerate self-indulgences such shiny modern things as democracy, science, markets and the empowerment of individual minds. Horrors like Hitler and Stalin strove to prove it so.

But they failed and enlightenment optimists prevailed, through courage,  innovation and will. George Marshall showed the way into a better era, filled with challenges but also progress.  Today, most babies that are born actually live good lives. We have been to the Moon. Race and gender and class are less deterministic of your fate, and you are sharing thoughts with me across a worldwide brain that we forged with our own ingenuity and hands.

CollapseCynicism isn't dead.  It never went away, nor is it only a thing of the right. (Though that is its present core.)  Dire eco-warnings, like Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (see my review) and James Cameron's AVATAR may have been meant to serve partly as dire warnings, to help us see the dangers, but also deliver doses of poison, by railing that we westerners are all hopeless fools bereft of decent institutions or problem-solving skills. Or even hope.

In fact, the clear-eyed view is neither gloomy nor starry-confident. It was the great historian, Arnold Toynbee, who I believe got it right.  After studying dozens of past cycles, he declared that civilizations thrive when they invest faith and hope in their creative minorities. When they see the future as a destination and willingly adapt new ways to reach it.

Toynbee -- after surveying many tales of rise and fall -- concluded that cultures start to decline when those creative minorities become distrusted, or are starved of capital, or left out in the cold. Or when they are shunned by those in power.

I mention this, because the clear and distinct pattern the we see in the latest phase of the American Civil War... similar to what occcured in  earlier phases... has been an underlying theme of populist hatred for society's brightest and most skilled.

This motif pervades everything we see from the "movement" nowadays.  In distrust of the Civil Service and the US Officer Corps.  In the relentless War on Science.  In boos that surge, at sneering mention of the word "Harvard."  The use of anti-intellectualism to divert attention from a far more worrisome elite -- a rising aristocracy of monopolies and almost-feudal wealth.

Let's be clear. I am not saying that intellectuals are always right.  I know plenty who are foolish. Nor is wealth inherently evil... I aspire to acquire more, through delivery of excellent goods and services, and I know some damn-fine billionaires.  Nor is there anything wrong with salt-of-the-earth fellows like those Redneck Comedy Tour guys, whose self-effacing charm could win over even alien invaders.  (Even if they don't read sci-fi.)

Still, if anybody ever had a clue about what makes civilizations rise and fall, Arnold Toynbee knew what he was talking about.

Moreover, the propaganda campaign against our creative people is so intense, so pure, and so relentlessly across-the-board, that it simply cannot be an accident.  The correlation is just too perfect.

Somebody wants us to fail.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Distinguishing Climate "Deniers" From "Skeptics"

A fair number of people have written in response to my previous posting - The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change - A War on Expertise - griping that I do not get a crucial distinction between climate-change "Skeptics" and "Deniers."

ClimateSkepticsSeveral claimed to be rational, educated fellows who regret the shrill anti-intellectualism of Fox News. Yet, they still defend the core notion underlying the anti-HGCC (human generated Climate change) movement -- the premise that virtually 100% of the thousands of  scientists in a given field can be suborned, corrupted, or intimidated simultaneously  into supporting a nonsensical, baseless theory.

A baseless theory that thousands of "skeptics" happen to be able to see through, all at the same time.

"We skeptics just want to get our questions answered," one person wrote. "Until then, of course, society should do nothing rash."

That sounds so reasonable, who could refuse?

Well, in fact, after two decades of seeing "let's not do anything rash" used as a talking point excuse for doing nothing at all? No, it doesn't sound reasonable.

But let's focus on the core matter at hand.

What factors would distinguish a rational, pro-science "skeptic"  - who has honest questions about the HGCC consensus - from members of a Denier Movement who think a winter snowstorm means there's ni net-warming of the planet?

Is such a distinction anything more than polemical trickery?

Well, in fact, it happens that I know some people who do qualify as climate change "skeptics."  Several are fellow science fiction authors or engineers, and you can quickly tell that they are vigorous, contrary minds, motivated more by curiosity than partisan rigor. One who I could name is the famed physicist Freeman Dyson.

(In fact, if truth be told, there are some aspects of HGCC that I feel I want clarified -- that seem to be poorly-justified, so far. I am an ornery, contrarian question-asker, of the first water!)

After extensive discussions with such folk, I found a set of distinct characteristics that separate  thoughtful Skeptics from your run of the mill, knee-jerk Denier dogma puppet.

Here's the first one:


Skeptics first admit that they are  non-experts, in the topic at hand. And that experts know more than they do.

Sound obvious? Especially regarding complex realms like atmospheric studies, or radiative transfer, or microcell computer modeling.  But this simple admission parts company from...

... Deniers, who wallow in the modern notion that a vociferous opinion is equivalent to spending twenty years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.
(Note: this is important.  Since the Neolithic, human civilizations have relied on specialists, a trend that accelerated across the 20th Century.  Want an irony? As coiner of the term "age of amateurs" I've been helping to push a new trend toward more distributed expertise and citizen-empowerment!  Yet, I also avow - as "Skeptics" do - that a nation has to start by respecting knowledge and those who have it.)


magv14n01_coverNext, the Skeptic is keenly aware that, after 4,000 years of jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophecy accurately beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan (tentatively) as far as 14 days ahead, based on a science that's grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other.  Now, with countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and climate guys are pretty damn smart.

The Skeptic admits that this rapid progress happened through a process of eager competitiveness, with scientists regularly challenging each other, poking at errors and forcing science forward. A rambunctious, ambitious process that makes Wall Street look tame.

Deniers also share this utter reliance on improved weather forecasting. They base vacations and investments on forecasts made by... the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks. Miraculously, they see no contradiction.


Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a consensus-model, before splitting to fight over sub-models.  Hence, if an outsider thinks that there appears to be "something wrong" with the core model, the humble and justified response of that curious outsider is to ask "what mistake am I making?"  -- before assuming 100% of the experts are wrong.

In contrast, Deniers glom onto an anecdotal "gotcha!" from a dogma-show or politically biased blog site.  Whereupon they conclude that ALL of the atmospheric scientists must be in on some wretched conspiracy. Simultaneously. Uniformly. At the same time.


Now dig this. The Skeptic is no pushover!  She knows that just because 100% of those who actually know about a scientific subject are in consensus, that doesn't mean the consensus-paradigm is always and automatically right!  There have been isolated cases, in scientific history, when all of the practitioners in a field were wrong at once.

Still, the skeptic admits that such events are rare.  Moreover, a steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that 100% of the experts are wrong.  That burden of proof is a moral, as well as intellectual geas, as we'll see below.

The Denier, on the other hand, knows no history, knows nothing about science, and especially has no understanding of how the Young Guns in any scientific field... the post-docs and recently-tenured junior professors... are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel prize winners and make a rep for themselves, in very much the manner of Billy the Kid! (Try looking into the history of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)

stormsofmygrandchildrenThis is a crucial point. For the core Denier narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is a corrupt or gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most... but every last one of them! Only that can explain why none of them have "come out."  (And note, Exxon and Fox have even offered lavish financial reward, for any that do.)

Oh, I admit that it's easy to see why the Denier can believe this.  He imagines that all of the Young Guns are either cowed, intimidated, or suborned by greed for measly five figure grants... because that is the way things work in the Denier's own business and life! 

He has no idea that most scientists are propelled by adventure, curiosity and sheer macho-competitive balls, far more than they are by titles or money. If all the post-docs in atmospheric studies have timidly laid down, then it is the first time it has happened in any field of science. Ever.

Oh, but the Denier thinks they are all  just greedy, conniving little putzes. Sure, this is a natural human mistake, to assume that others are like yourself.  But it is a mistake.

* Sorry... but this is a point to reiterate: I am not saying that all young scientists are noble and brave. I've known plenty who weren't.  But I have served in almost a dozen scientific fields, and I know that the best of the Young Guns would be screaming now, if all those "holes in the theory" were real.
They have the knowledge, the tools and the ambition. Their failure to "bark in the night" means something! Their acceptance of the HGCC model means something. It means a lot more than any number of glib spin-incantations from Sean Hannity. *

The Skeptic realizes all of this.  She takes it into account.  She adds it to the burden of proof borne by the other side. But let's move on.

The Denier claims that the corruption of 100% of the experts -- (upon whom he relies for his weather report) -- is propelled by "millions pouring into green technologies"... without ever showing how a space probe researcher studying Venus at JPL profits from a contract going to a windmill manufacturer in Copenhagen.  But I'm repeating myself, so hold that thought for later.

In contrast, our Skeptic, still fizzing with questions, hasn't finished "admitting things" first.


For example, the Skeptic openly admits that he knows who the chief beneficiaries are, of the current status quo.

Those who pushed a wasted decade, delaying energy efficiency research and urging us to guzzle carbon fuels like mad. The guys who benefit from keeping us on the oil-teat are... foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon.

The Skeptic admits that these fellow have Trillions (with a T) staked on preserving that status quo -- on preventing America from moving toward energy efficiency and independence.  He admits that a conspiracy among fifty petro oligarchs seems a lot more plausible than some convoluted cabal to "push green technologies" -- a supposed conspiracy involving tens of thousands of diverse people, most of them nerdy blabbermouths, squabbling over far smaller sums of money.


merchants-of-doubt1Consider some eerie parallels of methodology with the Great Big War over Tobacco.  Some of the very same consulting groups who formulated Big Tobacco's  "deny, delay, and obfuscate" strategy  - that gave that industry ~40 years to adjust to growing societal awareness of its problems - are working on the Energy Denial Front today, with precisely the same agenda. As one analyst recently put it:

"I think that the main driver for this movement is that when you compare the US economy "before" and "after" acceptance of human-induced warming contributions, one of the most significant differences will be the value of owning particular stocks.  It's impossible to dump onto the market a trillion dollars or more worth of stocks in industrial sectors that generate much of the CO2, without those stock prices dropping through the floor.  But with enough smokescreens raised to delay public acceptance, there is far more time to gradually unload stock, and perhaps even reposition the companies in the most vulnerable industries. 

"This strategy became especially crucial for them, when their earlier gambit - investing Social Security trust funds in the stock market - fell through.  This would have allowed brokers to unload half a trillion dollars in failing assets on millions of naive new stockholders.  We now know retirees would have lost hundreds of billions."

 This parallel with Big Tobacco is not only eerie, but puzzling.  In the end, Tobacco faced fierce ire and severe liability judgments that they escaped only through fast-footed political maneuvers.  This raises a fundamental issue.

If the Denier Movement obstruction leads to billions in losses and millions of refugees, will the top Deniers then be liable, under common and tort law, for damages?

This appears to not have been discussed anywhere that I know of.  But it makes the Skeptic/Denier distinction crucial. 

Those who merely ask scientific questions WHILE helping push for energy independence will be safe enough.  On the other hand, those who directly and deliberately obstructed reasonable precautions and progress toward efficiency may face a very angry and litigious world, if the expert forecasts prove right.  Preventing action upon expert advice is legally culpable.
In effect, they are betting everything they own. 


GoreFutureFurther, the Skeptic admits something pretty darned creepy and suspicious -- that the main "news" outlets pushing the Denier Movement are largely owned by those same petro-moguls.  (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch's debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil companies own more.)  Because of this, the Skeptic has moved away from getting any of his news or sense of "reality" from propagandists who are paid to keep America divided, weak, passively addicted to dependence, respectful of aristocracy, and mired in "culture war."

The Denier, in contrast, suckles from the Fox-Limbaugh machine.  He shrugs off any notion that oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs or Exxon moguls could possibly have any agenda, or ever, ever connive together.  They are pure as driven snow... compared to weather scientists. Right.

Elaborating a bit: the Skeptic has noticed that the Denier Movement is directly correlated with a particular "side" in America's calamitous, self-destructive Culture War.  The same side that includes "Creation Science."  The same side that oversaw the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, based on mythological asset bubbles and magical "financial instruments."  The same side that promised us "energy independence" then sabotaged every single effort, including all of the energy-related research that might have helped us get off the oil-teat. (And that research gap is a bigger smoking gun to pay attention-to than carbon credits.)

While the Denier sees this association of parallel anti-intellectual movements as a good thing, that enhances the credibility of the Denier Movement, the Skeptic has the mental courage to be embarrassed by it. Even while remaining a conservative, she is pulling herself away from all that.


Having admitted all of those things, the Skeptic now feels sufficiently distanced from madmen and reflex-puppets to express legitimate curiosity about a scientific matter much in the news.

Moreover, he knows that this is his perfect right!  We do not live in a society where elites are gods.  Not the rich or even scientists. The Skeptic refuses to get caught up in the reflex anti-intellectualism being pushed by the faux-right.  But he also knows that amateurs can be smart, and that curiosity was God's greatest gift to man.

Moreover,  our Skeptic feels like a smart guy! He's generally pretty well-educated and good in his own field.  Above all, he is a free citizen of the greatest and most scientifically advanced republic ever! And so, by gum, having admitted all that stuff (see above), he now wants his curiosity satisfied!  He wants the atmospheric experts to answer hard questions about some things that SEEM contradictory between the data and the model.

Fair enough.


Ah, but there is one more thing our poor Skeptic has to admit, if she truly is honest and ready to start peppering the experts. She needs to acknowledge that atmospheric scientists are human.

Furthermore, having tried for twenty years to use logic, reason and data to deal with a screeching, offensive and nasty Denial Movement, these human beings are exhausted people.  Their hackles are up. They have very, very important work on their plates. Their time is valuable and, frankly, they see little point in wasting any further, trying to reason with folks who:

-- deny that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas --

-- then deny human generated burning of carbon fuels has increased greenhouse gas content in the atmosphere --

-- then claim the increase won't affect temperatures --

-- then claim there is no warming --

-- while the US Navy is furiously making plans for an ice-free arctic --

-- then claim humans have no role in the warming --

-- then admit we've caused it, but claim it's
already too late, and anyway they'll have a longer growing season in Alberta --

-- then shout that "we can't afford" efforts to wean ourselves of greenhouse emissions...

..even though the things that would address HGCC happen to be stuff we should be doing, anyway, to gain energy independence, increase productivity, reduce the leverage of hostile petro powers, and a dozen other important things.

Mr. or Ms. Skeptic, can you see how wearing it has been, dealing with a storm of such BS?   Can you admit that the professionals and experts may not, at first, be able to distinguish sincere skeptics, like you, from the maniacs who have been chivvying and screaming at them (on puppet-orders from Fox and Riyadh and Moscow) for years? 

HGCC "Skeptics" like you are saddened to see that many of the scientists are prickly, irritable and sullen about answering an endless stream of rehashed questions, only a few of which aren't blatant nonsense.  But you Skeptics - the smart and honest ones - understand what's happened.

And so, you'll cooperate about helping the experts feel safe to come out and share what they know.  And maybe then they will answer some of the Skeptics' inconvenient questions.


This is when the honest Skeptic recites what I suggested earlier.

"Okay, I'll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, prevent ocean acidification, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. If I don't like one proposed way to achieve this, then I will negotiate in good faith other methods that can help us to achieve all these things, decisively, without further delay and with urgent speed.

"Further, I accept that "waste-not" and "a-penny-saved" and "cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness" and genuine market competition used to be good conservative attitudes.  But the "side" that has been pushing the Denial Movement - propelled by petro-princes, Russsian oligarchs and Exxon, hasn't any credibility on the issue of weaning America off wasteful habits. In fact, it's not conservatism at all.

"And so, for those reasons alone, let's join together to make a big and genuine push for efficiency.

"Oh, and by the way, I don't believe in Human-caused Global Climate Change!  But in case I am wrong, these measures would help deal with that too.

"So there, are you happy, you blue-smartypants-eco-science types? Are you satisfied that I am a sincere citizen-skeptic, and not one of the drivel-parroting Deniers?

"Good, then now, as fellow citizens, and more in a spirit of curiosity than polemics, can we please corner some atmospheric scientists and persuade them to enter into an extended teach-in, to answer some inconvenient questions?

"(Oh, and thanks for the vastly improved weather reports; they show you're smart enough to be able to explain these things to a humble-but-curious fellow citizen, like me.)"
As I said earlier, when I meet a conservative HGCC skeptic who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmospheres guys I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.

But alas, such genuine "skeptics" are rare.


Alas, I really have wasted my time, here.  Because, while the species of sincere, conservative-but-rational HGCC skeptics does exist - (I know several, and kind-of qualify as one, myself) - they turn out to be rare. 

For the most part, those calling themselves "skeptics" are nothing of the kind.  More often than not, they are fully-imbibed, koolaid-drinking Deniers, who wallow in isolated anecdotes and faux-partyline talking points, egotistically assuming that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-think opinion entitles them to howl ""corrupt fools!" at 100% of the brilliant men and women who have actually studied and are confronting an important topic...

...the very same people who the "skeptics" now count on to help them plan activities as far as two whole weeks into a future that used to be murky beyond two hours' time.

There are words for such such people. But none of those words are "skeptic."

David Brin
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Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change - A War on Expertise

ClimateSkepticsThe schism over global climate change (GCC) has become an intellectual chasm, across which everyone perceives the other side as Koolaid-drinkers.  Although I have mixed views of my own about the science of GCC, and have closely grilled a number of colleagues who are front-line atmospheric scientists (some at JPL), I'm afraid all the anecdotes and politics-drenched "questions" flying about right now aren't shedding light. They are, in fact, quite beside the point.

 That is because science itself is the main issue: its relevance and utility as a decision-making tool. 

Let there be no mistake, this is all about power, and the struggle goes way back.  In Britain, the "Boffin Principle" long held that technical people have no business making policy suggestions to their betters. In America, waves of anti-intellectual populism - like the 19th Century Know Nothing Party - were  deliberately stoked by aristocracies who saw the new, mental elites as a threat. 

There have been counter-surges. In the 1930s, propelled by ambitious modernism and depression-era desperation, a briefly popular "Technocracy Movement"  held that knowledge and skill should be paramount criteria for positions of leadership. A milder version of this eagerness for expertise was seen from Sputnik through the 1960s and 1970s, with glimmers during the Internet Boom years. (Notably, these were all lush times for science fiction literature.)

Of course, Technocracy was boneheaded and scary - though not as much as the new know-nothing era that we have endured during the last decade or so, a time when things became dicey even for the Civil Service and the U.S. Officer Corps.  Chris Mooney documents how relentless this agenda has been, in The Republican War on Science.  Though, let's be fair.  If films like Avatar are any indication, a variant of dour anti-scientific fever rages on the left, as well.

This is the context in which we should reconsider the Climate Change Denial Movement.  While murky in its scientific assertions -- (some claim the Earth isn't warming, while others say the ice-free Arctic won't be any of our doing) --  the core contention remains remarkably consistent. It holds that the 99% of atmospheric scientists who believe in GCC are suborned, stupid, incompetent, conspiratorial or untrustworthy hacks.

As part of a more general assault on the very notion of expertise, the narrative starts with a truism that is actually true:

 "Not every smart person is wise..."

only then extrapolates it, implicitly, to a blatant falsehood

"all smartypants are unwise, all the time; and my uninformed opinion is equal to any expert testimony."

Does that sound like a polemical stretch?  But it is precisely the implied subtext - a perverse kind of populism - at all levels of the War on Science.  In the specific case of GCC, since almost all top atmospheric scientists accept human-propelled climate change, they must be all cretins, corrupt, or cowards.

Here's a telling point. This uniformity of craven venality has to include even the ambitious postdocs and recently-tenured junior professors who, in every other field, sift constantly for some flaw in the current paradigm in order to go gunning after the big boys and thus make a reputation.  What, even the Young Guns are sellouts?  Even the paladins of skeptical enquiry are conspiring together in a grand cabal to... what?  Ah, now the story gets even better.  All the scientists and post-docs are colluding to foist this scam, in order to win a few ten-thousand dollar grants.  This  loose-change-grubbing, paradigm slavery is cited to explain the GCC imbroglio -- while the oilcos and petroprinces, who operate major propaganda outlets and have TRILLIONS staked in the status quo... they have no agenda at all.

Of course, to typify any lawful profession as across-the-board corrupt or cowardly is absurd, but to so besmirch the one professional cohort that is unambiguously the most brave, individualistic, honest, curious and smart of all, well, there has to be an agenda behind such drivel -- and there is one. The good old Boffin Effect.

My late colleague, Michael Crichton, crystallized it when he claimed "there is no such thing as scientific consensus,"  and thus he deemed it reasonable to ignore measures recommended by 99% of the people who actually know stuff about a problem that might damage our nation and world.

Now, as many of you know, I have my own complaints against expert communities. I'm known for promoting the "Age of Amateurs."  But empowered citizenship should supplement, not replace  the people who actually know the most about a topic. Respect toward professionals is compatible with keeping an eye on them.

Especially since -- and this is the kicker -- all the major recommended actions to deal with Global Climate Change are things we should be doing, anyway.

That's the most bizarre aspect.  I'd listen patiently to GGC Deniers and strive to answer their endlessly refurbished narratives, if they would only say the following first:

"Okay, I'll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy.  Waste-not and a-penny-saved and cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness used to be good conservative attitudes. And so, for those reasons alone, let's join together and make a big (and genuine*) push for efficiency.
merchants-of-doubt1"Oh, and by the way, I don't believe in Global Climate Change, but these measures would also help deal with that too.

"There, are you happy?  Now, as gentlemen, and more in a spirit of curiosity than polemics, can we please corner some atmospheric scientists and force them into an extended teach-in, to answer some inconvenient questions?"

When I meet a conservative who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmospheres guys I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.

 But that isn't the faux-narrative.  Instead it boils down to "I hate smartypants."  And it is thereupon understandable that (being human) the boffins are losing patience with the new Know Nothings.

David Brin

*PS... the word "genuine" is important.  Paying lip-service to "energy independence," while sabotaging it relentlessly, was something diametrically opposite to patriotism.

==Continue to: Distinguishing Clime "Deniers" from "Skeptics"