Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Objective Scientific Information in the Political World?

This New York Times article reports the outcome of 20 months of wrangling to try to reform the censorship of government scientists and bureaucratic spin on government findings that became so outrageously egregious under the Bush administration.White House Issues Long-Delayed Science GuidelinesKENNETH CHANG (December 17, 2010),

Structurally, there is a conflict of interest between the abstract concept and claims of scientific independence and objectivity with any organization's needs to maintain internal control, sources of funding, and extrinsic political support. 

And morally and ethically speaking? -- well, first and foremost there are structural conflicts of interest!!!! Idealistic  principles and rhetoric may help make people called scientists feel good about themselves but they can only have limited intellectual and expressive freedom within corporate or government  organizations, or within the professional alliance networks that help them get tenure and grants.  These sorts of things have been discussed extensively from various perspectives. One book that comes readily to mind is How Institutions Think, but Mary Douglas http://www.amazon.com/Institutions-Think-Frank-Abrams-Lectures/dp/0815602065/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1292692090&sr=1-1 Institutions must support certain fictions about themselves to function, and individuals entering these institutions must play along and not rock the boat, or they will most probably be out-grouped and their functionality impaired -- or they may even be expelled. In business, so what? Hype is a publicly understood part of the game. But in science, religion, and certain professions challenging the company line can sometimes be a more delicate matter. These institutions allege to stand for truth and objectivity, and it is understood that internal criticism is part of the workings that help earn them their reputations, but there are conventions for internal disagreement depending on the institution. One can be a critic and respected within the professional network if one can assure the others that s/he is nevertheless a team player. 

Scientists in government agencies are likewise expected to be team players. They can voice certain disagreements if they voice them internally and if they know when to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat.  The powers that be, for example among elected officials and industrial power-brokers, expect the bureaucrats to be able to keep control over their underlings. If they do not, then their careers are at stake and their budgets. It is difficult to see how to write a set of guidelines that could change such political realities with words. In part the system does need to strive for coordination and accountability and one cannot simply write out elements on which coordination and accountability might seem normally to depend. 

I dealt intimately with federal government and semi-government agencies for over 25 years at high and low levels and can best comment from personal experience on those that were involved with the development of biotechnology, agriculture, and environmental issues. I also dealt with university scientists that depended on funding in these areas and/or that had strong professional ties with networks of scientists in these areas. I began extensive work in 1983, early in the years when the institutional and ideological foundations were being set in place for what have become national policies on biotechnology in particular. 

In all of the agencies (and scientific networks) there were not only junior but senior scientists who had serious scientific concerns about and serious disagreements with the scientific policies and rhetoric of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and what became entrenched. Yet agency heads and university officials had their marching orders. I was also being fed concerns from scientists in a very powerful semi-governmental organization -- the National Academy of Sciences. 

Those many scientists with concerns existed in a working and political environment where the party line was to be defensive and dismissive, especially publicly, of any concerns about what administration jargon called the National Biotechnology Agenda. At every turn, I was meeting scientists with deep scientific concerns but who would only discuss them privately. To speak out publicly about their concerns would have been "talking out of school," which means being a "snitch." 

I am not in any way implying that there were not true believers in the party line!! Of course there were. And there were many who simply did not want to think beyond the conventions of how it was socially acceptable to have questions. The issue is the freedom of scientists in institutions who do have serious doubts that go beyond the acceptable bounds of disagreement to be public about their scientific perspectives that disagree seriously with what they see as the party line. Those bounds can be especially tight in government agencies when they are under political pressures, or in academic departments where particular perspectives hold sway. Then the dissenter needs special support or must simply be willing to endure the inevitable social/professional penalties.

Kids learn early that talking out of school does not mean to their peers "seeking justice" or "fighting for truth." It means being an unreliable team player. The psychology of the social animal easily transcends concerns over particular instances of bullying in school yards or prison yards. So any gains that might be had from seeking justice in particular situations run the risk of long term penalties in terms of social ostracism and revenge. Thus the easiest thing is for the individual to conform to group thinking, or at least to go along with it and try to not rock the boat.  

This principle seems to be learned at a very early stage in socialization (or is it a largely hard-wired social animal trait?) and it is carried over into adult supposedly rationally organized institutions and social networks. In any event one sees it to lesser or greater degrees even in government and universities and scientific networks, and in religions etc. 

Again, I was running into this climate of concern, frustration, and even fear at every turn in my work on biotechnology issues that began in 1983. Scientists in all government organizations had various serious scientific concerns but would only discuss them in private and would not "talk out of school." They would share their concerns because they had quickly learned that I was not the sort of person who would use their names without their permission and put their careers at risk.

By scientific concerns I mean several things. My own "assignment" so to speak was to help especially at the urging of the National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, university colleagues, David Kingsbury as he became Chairman of the White House Biotechnology Sciences Coordinating Committee (BSCC), and to a lesser extent the Department of Agriculture, Office of Technology Assessment, Food and Drug Administration, National Academy of Sciences, and various professional scientific organizations to try to understand how to think about any risks to the environment from recombinant DNA, and later to think about risks to food safety and human health.  Most biologists were and are specialists and yet this sort of analysis required integrative thinking, and I had a reputation for being good at this and also for having an unusually broad grasp of concepts and facts in diverse fields of biology. 

So most of my work and discussions over the decades had to do with these sorts of environmental and health safety concerns within the agencies. But there were other scientific concerns as well that were not directly tied to health and safety risks. Some had to do with "effectiveness." That is, were the proponents of biotech in science and industry too wrapped up in their enthusiasm and the competitive atmosphere of hype so that they were making unrealistic promises too readily? 

Eventually many books will be written about scientifically ill-conceived biotechnology projects that consumed a great deal -- to say the least -- of time, money, institutional, and other resources. A central problem was and has been that the promotional hype of proponent scientists has been far ahead of both the conceptual science and technologies themselves and in many cases not simply "ahead of" but ignorant of their limitations. 

This problem in turn stemmed not only from an intoxicating climate of business promotion and mega-dollars but from the fact that most of the scientists that founded molecular biology were chemists and physicists. Moreover, microbiologists and most other  scientists that later became involved in biotechnology continued to have only very narrow scientific training -- commonly only in biochemistry, molecular genetics, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and perhaps microbiology and the outlook was typically conceptually reductionist and typological. They had little if any substantial experience with sciences that dealt with complexity and emergent properties.  

Could biotech for example really solve the world hunger problem as was being promised? World hunger is in fact a complex problem and does not reduce conceptually to a global food shortage and the problem of growing more food on each plot of land. Moreover, there may in any event be limits to how much food can be produced by a corn or rice plant for example simply by manipulating its genetics. And is the potential of manipulating genetics with recombinant DNA significantly greater than with traditional breeding? This gives only a small glimpse into discussions that consumed countess hours among top scientists around the world behind the scenes as the "national biotechnology initiative' steamed in any event full steam ahead in its foundation years in the Reagan and Bush administration era. Many scientists had serious doubts about these and other claims that were being made.

Parenthetically, I might comment on how these particular claims have held up after some 30 years of discussions and research. Today one does still hear the "feed the world with biotech" claims though there are still no substantial reasons to believe them.  It has become more common to hear proponents say something like "we think that biotech could play some significant role in addressing the world's hunger problems." And of course this toned-down claim might be true, though what that role might be is still speculative. This is a long discussion. Also, it has become ever clearer as the industry has developed that the thrust is toward corporate monopolization of world food production, processing, and delivery. This could actually worsen world hunger. 

Here again, if one is a scientist that is trained to solve problems by focusing narrowly, one tends not be be sufficiently careful in thinking about real organism or real-world complexities and tends to ignore them as "details" or tries to explain them away without really knowing much about them.  

I could go on and on with "insider" examples related to biotechnology and genetic engineering. I could also give many examples of what was happening with regard to government agencies and the environment, for example in the national parks and national forests. My point however is that the suppression of scientific dissent in government agencies did not begin in the administration of George W. Bush. It became epidemic in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Then once arrangements had been forged between government and university bureaucrats and industry these acted as foundations that were not easily undone. The realities of power in American and other industrialized societies had become clear enough and the Clinton administration could probably not have taken  apart and reconstituted the cultures that had developed even if it had known how to reform "the system," or indeed even if it had wanted to. The Bush II administration simply continued the manipulations of scientists that had developed earlier and arguably made the situation worse. 

Why were Reagan and Bush I so successful at manipulating the agencies? Some of this should be obvious. One factor is that Reagan was swept in by a team that included conservative think tanks and activist foundations that had been watching the government for years and had philosophical agendas and plans well worked out and were even published.  They also brought in any number of corporate executives that had spent their careers shaking up and rebuilding organizations. They were by no means great scholars but they were well studied in top management, had important connections, and were largely on the same page politically/philosophically.  They had useful ties with the military and intelligence communities and with both old and new money. 

I think it would be a serious mistake to go along with the conventional wisdom that the Bush II administration was corrupt and that the manipulation of government science could easily be ended by an administration that is or "should be" more virtuous. There is a terrible historical legacy that involves individuals on staffs and networks of individuals in and out of government and perceptions of power in America. These can be thought of as cultural or structural problems. It is not clear that these could possibly be changed by issuing a "set of guidelines" alone.  

Moreover, the "guidelines" approach is complicated by the fact that there will in any profession or organization be differences of opinion that need to be talked out. The ideal way to do this would be internally so to speak, in a collegial manner, without grandstanding. Then if there can not be agreement, a minority report should be issued. But of course organizations do not like to appear to be in disarray.  And politicians in particular do not like to be handed disputes to have to deal with, so division can be a threat to agency political support and budgets. 

I would like to close by going back to an example from biotech. Iowa lawyer Steven Druker using documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that division heads with scientific credentials within the Food and Drug Administration and a Compliance Officer seriously disagreed with the science used to draft the FDA guidelines on genetically engineered foods (Foods Derived From New Plant Varieties, May 29, 1992, Federal Register vol. 57, No. 104 at 22991)  The guidelines suggested that there were not significant concerns and they did not reflect these serious disagreements among FDA scientists. Anyone at all close to the situation understood that the administrators were clearly caving into political pressures. Yet the administrators could in their defence say that they had many factors to weigh in issuing the guidelines and that scientific disagreements are quite normal. On the surface this is quite reasonable as a general statement. Administrators do need a certain amount of discretion. But the problem is that it is an administrative perspective and a general truth that can be used to cover up considerable abuse in particular instances such as this. 

One could make the same points about National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council reports. They are commissioned by agencies to help give them reliable scientific direction. So they strive as much as possible to take diverse scientific views and come up with a consensus in order to earn their keep, so to speak. Hopefully not to overstate the frequency of this -- the problem is that too often they only appear to provide a consensus and sometimes important scientific disagreements sink into the background and are hidden behind smooth rhetoric. Yet -- and this is my point -- the NAS is NOT under the direct control of the White House. It is simply necessarily involved in the political realities in Washington and the US, and must work in that environment to keep the perception that it is the place of importance and "the place to go" for objective scientific authority. Some of their reports are very good and others not so good.    

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Trade, War, and a Non-sustainable Planet. Today's Economic Crisis and China

Let us call colonialism the exertion of power by one state over another nation or another region of the earth, and call imperialism the outlook of the elites of the dominant power of their entitlement to rule. Let us keep in mind that there is not agreement on how to draw lines between conquest and colonialism and imperialism.  

The Spanish marched in and conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires militarily and some would say that this signalled the start of imperialistic colonialism in the modern era. Many would say that this was simply "conquest" as history had always known it, but for present purposes we need not bicker over terminology. The point that I want to get to is that much of subsequent colonialism did NOT fit the early Spanish model but involved power imposed through trade and debt relationships and political agreements, often with proxy local leaders, and only backed up by military intervention when necessary to support or expand those relationships and agreements. One might call this empire by manipulation because much of the machinery of control was "out of public sight" so to speak. The manipulation was in the shadows of account books, treaties, and back-room arrangements rather than in the hands of soldiers in foreign uniforms. 

How did and do such "out of public sight" arrangements come about? Let us approach the question from the perspective of human individual and social nature, and Global Human Ecology and keep in mind the proposition that masses of people would not normally knowingly put themselves under the power of foreigners. 

One might realize first that there has been bribery of individuals and factions in key positions who are superficially patriotic but corruptible.  Then of course there is bribery-enticement and/or trickery of people who are too dull or too much in denial to realize that they are being corrupted and are betraying their supposed loyalties, and these will rationalize their complicity. Those who are doing the buying-off will often bring ready-made rationalizations that the betrayers can use to ease their consciences or explain their complicity to their intimates. Offering defensive excuses can be a rather normal part of negotiations. 

This much is obvious and surely many people these days are thinking about how it is that their own elected officials and agency officials have been betraying their responsibilities. 

I want to focus now, however, on how crisis has been used to advance the cause of empire and colonialism, and now neo-colonialism. This comes up because of some of the reports coming out of Wikileaks this week about China's exploitation of the world crisis to pursue its ambitions for power and empire. What China has been doing is not categorically new, but we are all in a phase of history that is pivotal for all of us and thus of immediate concern, and there is a fair amount of information available, and we have the opportunity to study these dynamics in action.  

I suggest reading a couple of articles in Spiegel and then continuing to follow these sorts of stories. One article is "Capitalizing on the Euro Crisis: China Expands Its Influence in Europe." (12/14/2010) By Wieland Wagner and the other is "Investment with Strings Attached: Cables Reveal Resentment at Chinese Influence in Africa" (12/09/2010) by Horand Knaup.

The general picture is quite simple. The Chinese Communist Party now controls vast economic resources especially in banking and manufacturing and in some strategic materials such as rare earths . At the same time, the "Western" economies, notably the US and Europe have painted themselves into an awkward corner by pumping up their economies and economic elites largely by fiat dollars and other currencies created by governments, and by the financial industry itself in an unregulated fashion and having no clear intrinsic value. The lack of trust in the currencies  and value estimations has contributed to economic slumps, worsening unemployment, and deteriorating infrastructure.  

The Chinese power elite is cleverly taking advantage of these weaknesses and pursuing these openings to extend their economic and political power. As the writer of one article puts it, they leverage the largest political and economic advantages with minimal investments -- that over the globe add up to gaining considerable clout and control.  Speaking in general, this is the sort of thing that imperialistic elites have ALWAYS done. The US neocons were doing this sort of thing when they thought they had the advantage in recent years. 

Most of this looks to the naive simply like economic "aid" that is motivated by compassionate humanitarian sentiments. This is the public face, but it understandably has strings attached. Again, this decoy follows much of the pattern of colonialism and neo-colonialism. Much US foreign aid for example has been subsidies for US/multinational companies and has helped forge economic and political ties with "friendly" foreign elites. Much of the aid to India historically, involving trade, political and military help, railroads etc. ended up making India first into a dependency of the East Indian Company and then into a British Colony. Further examples abound. 

What keeps colonialist or neo-colonialist dynamics such as these moving toward continual expansion? It is very worrisome in terms of global human ecology that the drivers seem to have only a "go" button and no braking mechanisms that would be operated internally. This is like a biological hunger drive with no "set point" for satiety that is thus destined to create gross obesity. To extend the metaphor, one could argue that the ultimate destiny is obesity to the point of physiological breakdown and death. 

So what are the drivers? 

Psychologically, there has usually been an elite and national ideology of entitlement, superiority, and destiny. Such ideologies necessarily imply no endpoint but global hegemony of one sort or another. Christian "dominionists" today tell themselves that they are better than others and must take over the world politically for their brand of Jesus. Likewise, there are in effect Islamic dominionists that tell themselves they are better than others and must take over the world for their brand of Islam. Hegemony is a must, because God/Allah demands it. 

These ideologies do not NECESSARILY imply economic domination of the globe, but leave that option open. Thus these ideologies are potentially adaptable to forming alliances with those hegemonists that use economic, nationalistic, and/or ethnic terms of reference. These ideologies do not have the concept of "enough, stop" built into them. Similarly there have been cultural hegemonic ideologies that involve a sense of history and historical destiny and/or technological history and/or destiny. Manifest destiny in North America involved technological visions that steam and electrical power, railroads, guns, European clothing, etc. would be "civilizing" and this was commonly mixed in with notions about a white Protestant race being God's chosen people. 

The Chinese CCP elite has easily taken advantage of the sense of Chinese superiority and identity that is the legacy of centuries, indeed millennia of largely successful (yet still ongoing despite Han dominance) political efforts to build a nation out of diverse regions and ethnic groups. Current ideology involves today a constant reminder of past humiliations at the hands of Europeans, and a "national" need to recover face and rightful power in the world.  The useful long arm of this is that it can also be used to build and reinforce loyalty and support from overseas Chinese, who are often well-educated, skilled, and affluent. This sort of support from overseas has already proved to be useful to the Chinese elite, as it has also to the state of Israel (which is not to insist that Israel is on an expansionist hegemonic path).  

Economic ideological drivers have tended to be based on the naked self-interest of coalitions of entrepreneurs and networks of banks. Rulers have chartered and encouraged individuals and groups to use ingenuity and connections to pursue profits vigorously. Possession of luxuries and expensive life-syles have been encouraged in various cultures to help motivate ambitions. There is no end to these types of drivers either. There is always the bigger yacht, the bigger summer estate in Maine and another winter estate somewhere warm, another private airplane, more automobiles, more servants, more race horses, more precious objects, bigger and bigger bank accounts. 

The commerce associated with such things has throughout history provided a tax base for military and bureaucratic expansion and foreign adventures.  With rare exceptions commerce has been the life blood of empires. It has been necessary to support armies, police, and bureaucracies, buy allies, and build monuments and wonders to impress the population and give them diversions and a sense of pride in their particular political hierarchy. 

This is a good point at which to bring up competition. Ambition is not simply driven by internal values and desires. It is also driven by competition for trade and resources and military needs which are driven by international competition. It is moreover a social and economic phenomenon driven by both ideologically defined perceptions and necessities. 

Competition along with cooperation and independence are real factors in the natural world and in human affairs. But competition can be formulated ideologically as the overriding cosmic force and thus become a psycological driver that operates both within a social system and between social systems. Thus people will be driven to compete because this has become the norm and reality in their society, and in international affairs. 

Competitive individuals may be rewarded and admired and children raised to be competitive. Theatrical pageants of competitiveness have been invented in sports, television contests, survivor "reality shows, and the like that reinforce and perpetuate competitive ideologies. During the economic growth of Europe competition between towns to build grand cathedrals was encouraged by the religious elite, and similar architectural competitions have been encouraged in other theocracies. Thus even Christian communities would compete to make money to build grand temples and would honour economically aggressive members of their communities. 

Trade becomes the life blood of elites and the governments with which they are associated and through which elites pursue their ends. and hence competition over trade and material resources is in the vital interests of those elites and those governments.  There is a vicious cycle imbedded somewhere in this equation. Protection and pursuit of interests requires investment in the development and manufacture of arms. Arms races require more and more investment. Thus there must be more and more production and there is more to protect in terms of resources and trade arrangements. The system is driven more and more relentlessly. 

Many armed conflicts and much bloodshed has been caused by trade wars and wars over resources. Reading the Spiegel articles on China bring the Opium Wars to mind. China was selling silk, porcelain, tea, spices and other fine things to Europe and was buying back very little gong into the 1800s. Money (precious metals) were flowing to China from Europe. This was not unlike the situation today! China is getting wealthier and wealthier and the West is getting deeper in debt. To make a long story short, the East India Company and the British Empire began forcing China to buy addictive opium and China tried hard to stop this. In the name of free trade Britain fought China, gained Hong Kong, forced the Chinese to accept opium and the Chinese dynasty crashed in humiliation. One could argue that in a sense Britain was "forced" to do some dirty things because of its trade deficits, including waging war twice in the 1800s. We are all still living in the aftermath of this terrible thing. In 1853 US Admiral Perry led a squadron of war ships into Japan and threatened war unless the Japanese gave up their internal economy and opened themselves to American trade. That too changed the world. Japan decided to Westernize its society  and industrialize apparently in large part to be able to defend itself and not meet the same fate as China. That course steadily, perhaps inevitably, led to competition for resources and to colonial expansion and participation in two World Wars.   

There have been some efforts to reduce competition between armed entities by defining "spheres of influence." For example the Monroe Doctrine quickly developed into an understanding that the US would have economic domination in the Western Hemisphere. Australia and through it the British were given a sphere of influence in the South Pacific. The major European powers were given free reign in their "colonies." But dividing the world into spheres of influence would not in and of itself end conflicts over trade and resources. The Middle East and South Asia have always been difficult to split up into spheres of influence. 

Now in the last few decades China, even under the rule of the CCP, has shifted to an economically competitive economic base for power. It promotes internal and international commercial competition. It has adopted a system that cannot by its nature remain confined within its own borders. The mechanisms that have been set in place are hegemonic by nature. They include industrialization and a need to maintain markets and obtain low cost resources. China reaches out for power throughout Africa and as far as Europe and the US. Other once great countries are too weak to confine it to a "sphere of interest" using either diplomatic or economic leverage. Even military power is probably too limited to confine it as things presently appear. Predictions that it will fall apart from internal problems do not seem to have much substance. 

Moreover, "falling apart" would be tragic on its own terms. The various ethnic groups that make up China have suffered miserably under emperors, under colonialists, under nationalists, and under communists. One can only hope that the present odd form of capitalism that the CCP is pursuing is not merely shifting misery around among the Chinese people and building a new privileged class to help finance military power, recover world respect, and maintain government power. It would be much more compassionate for all of us to hope for reform than for collapse. 

Academically, we can dwell on the irony of a communist regime that seems not to be at all idealistic, and one can wonder if it was ever actually Marxist rather than essentially nationalistic and totalitarian. 

But it is also an academic matter that China is a set on a course that can only increase the ecological footprint of humanity on the planet and that might well lead to continued arms races and armed conflicts. We all are today in some phase of a clash of empires, and the interests of humanity and the environment seem destined to be secondary concerns for the warring giants. 

It does seem essential for humanitarians, educators, and environmentalists around the world to keep their bearings and keep working towards the goals of respect for human potential and dignity and sound ways of living together on this planet.  

Today's economic crisis provides openings for ambitious political and economic elites and governments to advance their interests. [Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine is recommended reading here.]And of course without vigorous dialogues about broader humanistic and ecological perspectives and accomplishments in the past against great odds, in effect resistance to mind control, there will be little to slow them down.