Monday, April 12, 2010

Sciences, Politics and Religion

A bit of a grab-bag today triggered by a range of different thoughts. A few weeks ago I argued for the need for scientists to be humble. One respondant neatly responded that my analysis was wrng, scientific theories are improved upon not found to be wrong. I was, of course, asking for this by chosing to say Newtonian mechanics is wrong.

Like many theories the subsequent theories of mechanics can be found to reduce to the Newtonian model under certain constraints, and hence Newtonian mechanics can still be usefully employed when the assumptions (low speeds, human scale distances) apply.

In Saturday's SMF Lisa Pryor wrote about a 1948 book on parenting that she had received from her garndmother. Its prescriptions on caring for a baby - including the infamous thirty minute kick in the sun - are often misguided, if not hilarious.

But that volume was prepared on the advice of "scientists". In the hilosophy biz there is a distinction drawn between positive and normative theories, the first describe what is and the latter what one ought to do. We regularly use positive theories with another linking statement to decide what we ought to do.

That brings me to the second piece, from a week ago, by Chris Berg of the IPA, also writing in the SMH. Berg's topic is climate change and his basic position is that we should do nothing about climate change, as no Australian action can stem the problem and that the costs are probably greater than the benefits.

Berg seems to have no concern that his response seems to ignore the bulk of the theories of economic science, that the bast way to deal with an externality (pollution) is to price it so that decisions are internalised or that the best way to decide where on the globe the polluting should occur (i.e. decide where production is most efficient) is to trade it.

But the biggest problem is that Berg is allowed to misrepresent the nature of the risk, because the cientific debate has become too much focussed on the immediate question of whether the planet is warming rather than the proposition that the theory of anthropogenic climate change is sufficiently plausibl, and the consequences so dire, that the best option is to act now. The error cost of acting when we didn't need to is much muvch lower than the error cost of not acting if we did need to.

For Berg to conclude;

Growth will fortify us against a climate that always changes. For if you can't cure the disease, manage the symptoms.

Is to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the principles involved. Amongst other things, we can cure the disease. This would be like someone deciding that we can never cure the disease of selfishness that would make markets, contracts and democracy fail. Managing the symptoms in that case would involve imposing a dictatorship.

Which brings me to the last point, a report of an event to launch the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program. The participants were a predictable bunch from the IPA and a Qudrant contributors list. The report sugests that the event itself was a tad confused about its intent.

It seems to be a collection of people who would most normally line up with a copy of Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom in one hand and Hayek's The Road to Surfdom in the other trying to advance the case that a combination of postmodernism and "cultural relativism" had eroded the celebration of the achievements of Western civilisation and the Judeo-Christian tradition.

It seems a terrible shame to see Cardinal Pell aligned with the leading thinkers of the Libertarian right, after all the Catholic Church was the main opponent of the hard fought battles for democracy and freedom. While the Thirty Years War was on one level between Ctholics and Protestants, on another it was between absolute (church supported/divine right to rule) monarchy and nation focussed constitutional (secular state/freedom of religion) monarchy.

To claim there is any such thing as a valid Judeo-Christian tradition that is universally good. It is posible to argue that thre is a very good ethcal and political tradition in the West, that happens to have arisen from that religious tradition. However, much of what can be justly criticised within the West from the platform of that ethical and political tradition also was done in the name of that church - religious crusades, torture as a means of interrogation (a person could not be presumed to be telling the truth UNLESS they were tortured), slavery (never spoken against in the Bible), endless wars.

Just as scientists need to be more humble, those who wish to profess the wonders of the West need to do more than claim the wonders of a specific heritage. They need to do more than criticise those who they acuse of relativism. They need to enunciate the values that they truly stand for. Such clarity cannot be found merely in a reminisence for a school curriculum built around British jingoism and Australia moral superiority.

Finally, I heard a really great line in a sermon on Sunday.

Courage is not overcoming your fears, it is about continuing to fight despite your fears. The same is true of faith. Faith is not about overcoming your doubts, it is about continuing to believe despite your doubts.

That's the kind of faith I mean in my toika of faith, hope and love. I'm not a great Bible reader but I think Hebrews 11:1 should be read more widely "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."

Those people like Roy Williams (author of God Actually) trying to use design theory as "proof" of the existence in God miss the point. If you need proof you don't have faith.

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