Saturday, February 22, 2014

Skeptics and Scholars

By Joseph Sarkis

This week our institution (WPI) is hosting a talk by Bjorn Lomborg.  He was the invited Provost’s University lecturer.  Yes, it is viewed by the campus as a controversial decision.  Many of us view this as old news and wondered why the decision had made to invite such a contentious speaker.  It has certainly sparked a debate around campus, and maybe that was the intention.

Lomborg is best known for his book the Skeptical Environmentalist.  The argument through most of the book is that the environment is not under the distress that all the scientists make it out to be and policy makers should make cost-benefit decisions that benefit humanity, not necessarily the environment.  If the tradeoff is investing in human problems rather than environmental problems, Lomborg believe social problems need to take precedence from the cost-benefit perspective. 

A storm of debate, mostly against the book and Lomborg’s findings emerged after the introduction of his book, over a decade ago.  The criticism was that Lomborg was fast and loose with many of the statistics. Accusations of misrepresentation and cherry-picking, at best, and outright scientific fraud were made.  Findings and appeals of fraud were made, things eventually settled down.  But, a bad taste still exists. 

Having remembered some of the issues, I still had to go back to the historical web record to review some of the concerns.  Unfortunately, I have never read the book, but my reading list is very long…and as I have glibly stated, I do not have enough time to read fiction.  Parts of the debates and issues appear here and here

Lomborg has recently come to the conclusion that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and we should do something about it.  Although he has sent mixed messages, especially if we should be investing in doing anything to mitigate it, especially with his recent book on ‘Cooling It’.

In response to our campus controversy, a group of faculty and students will be having a forum the day after his talk.  It was agreed that we will not be attacking him or his history.  We will try to discuss what and how we as an academic institution and scientists should respond to such a polemical set of ideas.  I was hoping to have an environmental ethicist in this group, but unfortunately the one available environmental ethicist publicly stated that they would boycott this presentation and recommend that their students do so as well.

I will be involved in the forum.  And I will be introducing two thoughts.

The first thought, I think in response to the environmental debate notably with respect cost-benefit analyses, is the issue of stakeholder perspective.  An initial basic concern for cost-benefit analysis is whose costs and benefits are going to be considered.  A second basic concern is how to value these costs and benefits. 

Arguably, depending on perspective and valuation, the cost-benefit analysis will be very different.  The anthropocentric perspective and valuation, as espoused by the invited lecturer in his writings, will almost always undervalue the environment.

The contention here has always been that the environment can only have proxy voices in man’s ethical, moral and economic valuations.  Human and social issues have significantly louder and greater proponents in this debate.  That is why I believe the triple-bottom line angle of sustainability may actually hurt environmental progress and investment, especially when the fundamental underpinning is that tradeoffs are inevitable.

A second thought, one that recently has caused a ripple in academia, is based on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times opinion on the need for public intellectuals from academia.  One piece of this argument is that academics and their work have become so arcane and internally focused that they have ignored their external obligations to further intellectual understandings of today’s problems.

There are concerns here ranging from the definition of a public intellectual to acting as a public intellectual in an anti-intellectual policy and social environment.  Is it acceptable to the academic community that our most prominent public intellectual today is Bill Nye, the Science Guy? 

Arguably, these blogs serve as an outlet for public intellectuals and intellectual debate.  But even in these circumstances we still seem to be speaking to each other and not to the broader community.  Evidence of the malaise of public intellectualism is that many of the original bloggers we had at the initiation of this blog site have not posted in years. 

Are we, in this academic community, too busy to be public intellectuals?  Are we not incentivized to be so?  Do we not have a large enough megaphone?  As scholars do we join and encourage skeptics to our scientific findings by our silence?

To be fair, I know colleagues who are quoted and interviewed continuously by major media outlets. Why are their voices not heard? I view them to be public intellectuals. 

Someone such as Bjorn Lomborg is given a larger audience. Why is this so?  Is it because traditionally focused stakeholders with great self-interest, who are resource rich, agree with what he says rather than agreeing with the consensus of the scientific community?  Is there a vacuum in the intellectual debate?  Or as one colleague stated, he is a very good self-promoter.  Are academics viewpoint of public intellectualism tarnished by this image of public intellectualism as self-aggrandizement?

There are clearly many issues revolving around these issues, but to sit back idly and not be involved at some level, whether it is the classroom or in blogs, is something we should reflect on.  In a future blog, I hope to return to a discussion of our obligations and whether we should take a moral stand on issues that we try to study objectively.

1 comment:

Mark RIce said...

Nice to read a thoughtful piece about a challenging issue. Thanks, Joe.