Scientists vs Commoners


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

92 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    It’s actually a coincidence that this came after the mammoth vaccinations thread. I wrote it the day before yesterday.Report

  2. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Growing world population will be a major problem… that’s definitely a “beer” question.
    Because I consider resource wars to be a problem — but they will handily solve the world population issue, given enough time.Report

    • Avatar Damon in reply to Kimmi says:

      It’s not a problem if we don’t let the starving masses into our country 🙂Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

        you think China couldn’t simply send enough people to overwhelm us?Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Damon says:

        And how would they “overwhelm” us?

        Send them in boats?
        Paradrop them from large airlines at 30 thousand feet?
        Smuggle them through Mexico?

        I doubt even that China has the logistics capable of transporting any large number of people..and I mean 100K or more at a single time. And even if they did, all it takes in one missile.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Damon says:

        honestly, I swear to god I haven’t read China’s plans to invade America. So I truly don’t know. [If I were them, I might try quashing Japan first — and then you get lots of good factories and engineers.]

        If Canada can have a competent plan to invade America, surely China’s got a decent one.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    Safe to eat GMO food: Science.
    Use animals in research: Science.
    Eat food treated with pesticides: Science.
    Evolution: Science.
    Require vaccinations: Lean Science. (Question poorly phrased).
    Anthropogenetic climate change: Science.
    Growing population a major problem: Don’t know.
    More nuclear plants: Science.
    More offshore drilling: Commoner.
    Astronauts part of future space program: Commoner (note small gap between endpoints).
    More biofuel: Science (small gap).
    More fracking: Commoner (small gap) (question poorly phrased).
    Space station good!: Science (small gap).

    [1] Re: vaccinations — the question refers to “requiring” them. I would not legally compel all parents to vaccinate all children. I would strongly encourage them to do so and publicly disavow the notion that there are appreciable risks. I would “require” them as a condition of availing public goods requiring contact with other vulnerable members of the population, e.g., public school attendance. To the extent that my attitude is “if you’re not going to vaccinate your kids, you have to homeschool them,” that seems like a “requirement” so I count myself as leaning on the “scientist” side of the questions.

    [2] Re: fracking — I favor the continued use of this technique to extract petroleum-based fossil fuels because our economy and infrastructure are still heavily dependent on petroleum, and as an economy and as a nation we are stronger as we produce more of these within our borders. That does not mean I think we yet know enough about what fracking does to the environment and I am skeptical of industry claims that it is 100% harmless or nearly so. If nothing else, it seems to create an obvious risk of sinkholes, and apocryphal evidence hints at risks of groundwater contamination which is a very serious risk indeed because of the difficulty and expense involved in remediation. I would like to see research and experimentation to determine if there is some sort of way to “safely frack” or at least “frack safer.”Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I agree that phrasing matters and some of them are asking questions where the appropriate answer is “it depends”… the vaccination question is one of them. For me, though, the hang up is not just criminalization but my support for exemptions (until or unless we simply cannot sustain them – my view here is subject to change in circumstances). Do you support any exemptions?Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Will Truman says:

        As you know from my writing on other subjects, I believe that religious exemptions to laws of general applicability have been treated in a fashion too deferentially to religion and without enough consideration of public needs. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be religious exemptions. But vaccination in particular is an area where I see grounds to both impose some inquiry on the claimant and meaningfully grant some deference to the government: your decision not to vaccinate your kid puts my kid at appreciably greater risk of harm.Report

      • I figured that was where you were coming from, Burt. I do actually have a problem with religious exemptions and not philosophical ones. It seems to me either both or neither.

        I like California’s idea of requiring a doctor’s visit (ie sales pitch) before being allowed to decline.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

        I’m not an expert, but I would only offer exemptions for medical reasons.

        Does the fact that it is the parents’ religious beliefs regarding a procedure performed on the child (likely before such time that the child is capable of holding religious beliefs) mean anything?

        I mean, what does it mean to have religious beliefs? We’re not requiring these parents to stick the kids themselves. Or to get vaccinated. We’re requiring that the children get vaccinated.

        Quasi-related… imagine a child from a Jewish family who keeps Kosher who attends public school. Would we require that the workers in the cafeteria forbid him from eating non-Kosher foods? Would failure to put such a requirement in place violate the parents’ 1st Amendment rights?Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Burt Likko says:

      How low does oil have to get before you disfavor fracking? I don’t think it’s cost-effective at this point, so you’re actively talking about paying people to get petroleum…

      (Note: a national security argument is a fine and dandy arguement for paying people — that’s why we bailed out Big Auto, after all).Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kimmi says:

        I think the market can take care of that on its own just fine without government intervention. Your question implies the presence of a public subsidy. Extraction should be a source of excise taxes — a gain to the public fisc, rather than a drain from it. But I don’t know the extent of subsidization. My starting position with respect to such a thing is that any subsidy of fossil fuel extraction is presumptively a bad idea and the beneficiary of the subsidy bears the burden of convincing me to the contrary.

        I also don’t think this question is going to matter in the medium run. Oil won’t always be as cheap as it is right now. Better to learn now how to minimize the damage fracking does, because one day we may have little choice but to do even more of it than we’ve been doing so far. “Safer fracking” research should not foreclose research into other, less impactful ways of deriving energy, or of more efficiently using fuels: it’s not an either-or situation.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Burt Likko says:


      Re: fracking

      If I’m reading you correctly, it seems you are saying, “We’re not sure this is entirely safe yet — with some potential risks being quite dire — but let’s continue doing it while we investigate.”

      Do I have that right? I want to make sure I understand you before I respond.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

        When you put it that way it seems like a very foolhardy policy position, doesn’t it?

        Of course, so is “We’re going to presume that you’re entitled to keep and bear as many deadly guns as you like until and unless something happens that shifts that presumption, like your conviction of a felony or your diagnosis of a profound mental illness.” Maybe not the rational policy proposal a subject matter expert might come up with, but one strongly suggested by a political decision to protect firearm ownership as an individual right in our fundamental law.

        So too is the general idea that people should be able to do what they want with things they own, as long as they aren’t hurting other people in the process. Fracking is people doing what they want with their property, and if it’s not certain enough that they’re hurting others in the process, then presumptively, we have to let them proceed. Again, I only know what I know and I don’t claim to be a subject matter expert in geology — what I know suggests that it’s unclear but possible that even these dire harms will result.

        So just as we let the guy whose mental health is uncertain but has not yet committed any crimes own a gun, so too do we let the guy who wants to drill on his own land drill away. Because that’s how we’ve chosen to govern ourselves.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Kazzy says:

        Kazzy, what “dire harms” are you talking about?Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:

        as far as I’m concerned, half of fracking/gas-drilling is stealing your neighbor’s resources.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:

        formaldehyde, at least according to our latest measurements.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

        The same way that my drilling a well for groundwater depletes your resources, @kimmi ? But most folks don’t have nearly the moral problem with me drilling a groundwater well, even if that well drains some of the subterranean water from your property. At most, we might use the law to impose a compact on the neighbors whose surface property boundaries overlay a subterranean aquifer — but we wouldn’t say, absent some other law or court order the likes of which our man @francis would be even more familiar than I, that I couldn’t drill the well at all.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:

        remember, I live in PA. Where mineral rights have been separated from surface lots for generations. And where people with mineral rights are able to wreck people’s homes, legally, while mining.

        We are talking about large scale extraction efforts, not just “water for my family” or “water for my farm”. I think it is worthwhile to distinguish the two. (Also like to note that what we developed when water was plentiful might could stand a reevaluation now that we’re pretty much at the dregs of our acquifers).Report

      • Avatar Marchmaine in reply to Kazzy says:

        Fracking is interesting precisely because it is the only one where both Scientists and Commoners are unsure that it is a good idea.

        Forget the 8-point spread. 61% of Scientists are against increased Fracking. That, I’d say, is fairly under-reported.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I was referring to Burt’s statement about the “very serious” harm done to groundwater IFF contamination takes place.


        My apology if that description there seemed to be putting my finger on the scale. I wanted to make sure I understood you fairly and was trying to be as direct as possible. But thank you for elaborating on your argument.

        I don’t think the analogy to guns really holds though. At least insofar as I understand fracking.

        If someone interested in fracking could ensure that the impact of there actions was limited to their property, I’d say let them have at it. But I don’t think that is the case. I don’t think they can limit the impact to their property. Instead, it seems that fracking does impact the property of others around them (including commonly held property) but we’re just not quite sure how. If I am correct in that understanding, I’m comfortable putting the burden on the fracker until they could demonstrate that no harm would be done.

        To analogize this to guns, it’d be as if the gun owner was going to fire randomly onto your property but was pretty sure he’d never actually hurt you.

        I’m also aware that much of the information put out there about the risks of fracking isn’t the most reliable. It seems that fracking remains in the “We really don’t know what the effects of this process are” stage and giving that it doesn’t solve a dire, immediate problem (by my calculation), it seems prudent to wait until we move beyond that stage.Report

      • Avatar Francis in reply to Kazzy says:

        Aha. Something more interesting than my current workload!

        The act of fracking is generally quite safe, because there’s usually a very long way between the petroleum and the water table. But the act of transporting the petroleum to the surface is where the risk lies. Building a well is expensive. Building a really safe well that can’t possibly leak, where the well construction is continuously monitored by an independent third party is a lot more expensive. (This industry cut corners? Never happen. Except …. [examples to be provided by the community.].) And the regulatory agency charged with supervision over oil wells in California — DOGGR (Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources) — is not exactly known for its independence from the industry it purports to oversee. (A completely different, but also important, issue is water supply.)

        As to the legality of extracting your neighbor’s hydrocarbons, all I can say to that is that oil&gas law is almost as specialized and arcane as California’s water law. I also know virtually nothing about it.

        In general, you can sink a water well on your own property and pump as much water from the groundwater basin beneath your feet as your crops on that property can beneficially use. This is called your ‘overlying’ right. Yes, concurrent exercise of overlying rights can deplete a communal resource. When the communal depletion gets too bad, the landowners go to court and adjudicate their respective rights. (Groundwater adjudications commonly last for decades.)

        In the o&g field, the whole point is to sever the resource from the mineral estate. So many of the policies underlying groundwater adjudication (beneficial use, protecting the communal resource, etc.) don’t exist. My very limited understanding is that the o&g field tries much harder to avoid adjudicating rights to the resource and instead uses various kinds of contracts to pay the various rights holders their allocated share.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Kazzy says:

        What, are you kidding, @kazzy ? I thought you offered a most excellent challenge to the position I staked out for myself. When one of the lawyers here finds a way to restate the other party’s case in a way that favors our own client, we commend that lawyer’s cleverness with the mock-backpedal “Well, when you put it that way…” and we all share a good laugh. You did the same thing there.

        It’s not so much that we don’t know what a subject matter expert will recommend in a given situation, as that multiple subject matters frequently have to be balanced. It’s rare that only one kind of interest is implicated with a public policy decision. For instance with fracking, we can talk to geologists and get one kind of subject matter expertise and a corresponding public policy preference. We can also talk to hydrologists and get another kind of subject matter expertise and the corresponding public policy proposal. And we can talk to a property rights lawyer, and we can talk to an energy analyst, and we can talk to all manner of other sorts of people with all other sorts of insights, knowledge, training, expertise, and education at their disposal.

        Who balances all of those different perspectives, different kinds of expertise, and resultingly different sorts of public policy proposals? The answer for now is a person with subject matter expertise in the formation of public policy, or a “politician” for short. Since we tend to not trust these sorts of people all that much, we make them work together in packs, ensuring that we get a sample of different perspectives in the process.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        Well then, I’ll take it! My point was that I hadn’t yet decided how I felt about your position. So my intention was not to reframe it in favor of my position but rather to understand it and then form a position. But, hey, I’ll take what I can get!

        See my comment below (or the actual 538 analysis) where they discuss the difference between scientists weighing in on their area of expertise and policy making — which are necessarily different for the reasons you state.Report

      • Avatar Michael Cain in reply to Kazzy says:

        So just as we let the guy whose mental health is uncertain but has not yet committed any crimes own a gun, so too do we let the guy who wants to drill on his own land drill away.

        To expand on @francis ‘s point, we don’t let the guy just drill away, at least not for oil and gas. The well will have to be registered with and approved by the state (if for no reason other than the operator will by paying severance taxes on any production that occurs). The well design relevant to the known geology may have to be approved. There are regulations on pretty much every step of the process: drilling, cementing, finishing. Depending on the state, there may be “best practices” for all of those that must be followed. IIRC, in many states you’re required to post a performance bond to assure that if you abandon the project part-way through, the well will be plugged appropriately. The infrastructure atop the well has to meet state and federal standards for emissions of things like methane and VOC (Colorado has an interesting problem on its hands now that it’s been established that the gas collection pipelines leak more in aggregate than is allowed, but through many, many leaks that are too small to individually identify). If the well is expected to produce fluids during drilling or production, either natural or retrieved fracking fluids, you’ll have to have an approved disposal plan. Some of the naturally produced brines from deep wells are much nastier than fracking fluid.

        I suppose the gun analog would be that you have to register the weapon, fill out paperwork anytime you load it, and follow approved processes (sometimes subject to audit) any time you discharge it.Report

      • Avatar Mo in reply to Kazzy says:

        @burt-likko I think @kazzy is stating a basic truism of the strong form of the precautionary principle. I generally don’t like stopping something because of unknown or theorized dangers. For example, using the limit would have prevented the LHC from being built because some theoretical physicists thought we could create a black hole and destroy the earth. Compared to that, fracking is child’s play.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

        It’s worth pointing out here the Precautionary Principle has become a bane to vaping. “We don’t know how comparatively dangerous these things are. They may be only a little dangerous, or could be worse than actually smoking for all we know. We should come down on these things really hard to prevent people from using them.”

        The argument has not carried the day (yet), but it’s out there. And to relate it to the OP, the entire debate has me looking more skeptically at large chunks of the scienfic/medical community.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:


        I think fracking (unlike vaping) is exactly the situation wherein the Precautionary Principle is justified.

        If we say, “We’re really not sure how vaping works. We think it’s safe… and very likely safer than cigarettes, but we won’t know for some time,” individuals can choose for themselves whether to adopt that risk.

        But if we say the same for fracking — where negative impacts can be long-term, irreversible, widespread, and felt by those wholly uninvolved in the process — we’re not really giving people individual choice. I might say, “No fracking on my property,” and you might say, “Fracking on mine,” but if my groundwater is contaminated by your process, I never really got to choose for myself.Report

      • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Kazzy says:

        @kazzy That’s fair. I do tend to support the right of communities and areas to ban fracking. Partially so they can assess their own risks and rewards. Provided, to some degree, that the fears are reasonable (and I think in the case of fracking they are). I am overwhelmingly likely to vote against bans, but I think the people of Denton (for example) were within their rights not to allow it via the democratic process.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I agree with your position on vaccination, Burt.Report

    • Re: fracking. Someone else was claiming about nuance, and this may well be a great example of that. I generally oppose fracking, but on the grounds that it’s a last panic mode grab for petroleum in order to avoid the unpleasant future of electrifying (and limiting to some extent) personal transportation. That is, the US investment in fracking (low hundreds of billions of dollars is the best guess) will turn out to have been a rather bad mistake.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    When it comes to solving policy questions with science, I’m not sure that turning to the scientists is the best solution even if they happen to be right about what is actually happening. When asked to propose solutions, they can get really impractical at times because they don’t think about the politics of the solution. A while ago, I believe there was an io9 interview with a ecologist whose idea to save the world’s animals from massive extinction was to turn half the globe into a reserve and a vast human no-go. Most people should be able to think of at least some of the problems from implementing this solution. A lot of lay distrust of science comes from advocating some solutions that seem far out from a lay standpoint.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Depends on the scientist. Plenty of them get hired for solving actual policy problems, and not just in the Department of Energy.

      The trick with scientists is telling them the constraints of the problem (where applicable). Darpa scientists are the worst, in that regard.Report

    • Avatar Gabriel Conroy in reply to LeeEsq says:


      I pretty much agree. Many of the issues listed in that linked-to article can’t be solved by science qua science. Scientists can say something valuable about them, and they ought to be listened to and their advice taken. But theirs isn’t the only concern.

      Here are the issues I’m thinking of:

      use of animals in research
      requiring MMR (or any other) vaccines
      build more nuclear power plants
      do more off-shore drilling
      astronauts are needed for US space program*
      use bioengineered fuel
      more fracking
      space station a good investment for the US

      *For me that’s more of a proxy question for how much we want to invest in a space program. If space scientists say that in order to know x, y, and z, we really need an astronaut and not some non-manned spacecraft, then I’m inclined to agree, as far as x, y, z are concerned.Report

  5. Avatar Saul DeGraw says:

    Pesticides can cause other problems of course:

    I think the issue is probably much more complicated because psychology is complicated. I have a friend who has a PhD in Chemistry and said friend is very anti-GMO and very pro-organic farming. I think that my friend subconsciously views anti-GMO as a progressive issue and finds a way to make the scientist side support an anti-GMO proposition. Said friend is very pro-Vaccine though.

    Looking at the link, I am not anti-GMO and probably eat food with pesticides but I said those have other problems like colony collapse disorder so the issue is more complicated than whether pesticides are okay or not.

    I think testing on animals probably makes sense for medicine but is less ethically okay for stuff like cosmetics. On the rest, I seem to be with the scientists.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

      My only beef with GMO isn’t scary frankenfood — it’s more along the lines of monoculture and optimizations for immediate returns that might not be a good idea long term (like pesticide resistance) — not because it’ll make the food more dangerous, but because of changes it might allow in large-scale agriculture.

      I don’t worry about eating the stuff. I worry about the actual farming and impact kind of thing.

      Which isn’t really about GMO’s, it’s about modern, large-scale farming (which I happen to think is quite necessary) and the ways it’s being done.Report

  6. Avatar Chris says:

    I’m on the non-scientist side for offshore drilling (which, it should be noted, is basically 50/50 among scientists) and fracking (neither group favors more fracking generally, though).Report

  7. Avatar zic says:

    I hate polls like this, they lack nuance.

    As an example, take GMO’s and pesticides, they play in to my logic. I don’t think for a single minute that a GMO food harms you because of the genetic manipulation. The problem is what that genetic manipulation allows — and my example here is wheat, modified to be able to withstand glyphosate; round-up ready, which is used both as an herbicide and pesticide. The problem here is that weeds and bugs to develop resistance to it; it’s not 100%, it’s something less, and those that resist reproduce. So for many farmers, the answer’s simple; use more glyphosate. It’s the classic chili-pepper conundrum; a little is good, so more is better. There are plenty of instances (particularly in developing nations) where that more is better is many-times more than the recommended uses; and while the recommended application might be acceptable, many-times that recommended application might do all sorts of bad stuff to the people who consume the food; I’m pretty convinced (from the science, mostly out of northern Europe), that glyphosate is causing a lot of harm to a lot of people, and may be at the root of much of the growing gluten intolerance we’re seeing (not to confuse gluten intolerance with a crappy, white-flour/sugar/fat diet, either).

    So I would be on the side of the public on GMO’s, not because of GMO, but because of human nature and if some is good, more is better. I find that the science of this is difficult enough, and young enough, that GMO=bad is the common social signaling.

    So I just don’t think any of these issues are as simple as these questions make them out to be. If you’re thinking about climate change, a series of violent volcanic eruptions or a big-assed comet strike are probably as damaging as anything humans do; but that doesn’t mean humans aren’t doing are a fine, frightening clip, either.

    It depends on what you’re thinking of, and no single person can think of all pertinent details at any given moment; their answers will very much depend on how their brains are primed when they’re asked the question and on how the question is framed in context of that priming.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to zic says:

      Finding the people who think GMO=bad and then telling them about Golden Rice is amusing.
      I savor their tears.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to zic says:

      Good point, zic – the questions do lack nuance. I strongly support use of GMO crops and think they can be a great benefit to humanity (golden rice is one example), but I don’t support many of the practices of major producers like Monsanto.Report

  8. Avatar Jim Heffman says:

    “growing world population” is rather less of a problem than you’d think, when you look back and see that we were supposed to have anywhere from fourteen to twenty billion people on the planet by now…and those were predictions made as late as the Nineties!

    Hell, according to Paul Ehrlich, by this date more people would have starved to death than are currently alive.Report

    • From what I understand, the population is projected to peak at around 11-12bn. Maybe that doesn’t happen because such estimates often are flimsy. Of course, underestimating population growth hasn’t been the issue recently.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Will Truman says:

        Well, as of 2012 the peak population projection was revised upwards from ~9 billion to ~12 billion, so there were issues with underestimating it.

        But fertility rates can change quickly (in the Mideast/North Africa, they dropped from an average of 6.2 to 3.2 between 1980 and 2000). Population growth rates are going to depend on economic conditions and policies; they’re not set in stoneReport

      • Avatar zic in reply to Will Truman says:

        I hate population discussions. Too often, it views human population as something separate from the earth’s global population of species; and to the diversity-of-species future generations might need to thrive. There’s a world of other creatures out there, and we humans depend on them. We are, each of us, collectives of thousands of species that have lived, genes mixed, symbiotes joined, cells merged, the flora, fauna, and fungi of decay.

        Discussion of human population are total rubbish when it doesn’t include non-human populations and needed biodiversity; and research that does suggests that overpopulation is a problem of great magnitude already. Climate change from green-house gases, plastics in the ocean, the acidification of the ocean, loss of habitats for monarch butterflies are all symptoms of over population, if you will.

        If we want to populate this much, humans have a responsibility to do so ethically. You don’t soil your own nest, and the Earth is humankind’s nest. I’m not okay with the notion that God gave the earth to humans; that myth goes doesn’t recognize that earth made humans, god didn’t.

        Population numbers that only consider human survival, and not ecosystem in which humans are part are meaningless; but all too common. I understand this notion from gardening, and I’d like to think of gardening as the best metaphor for earth and understanding our place on it; but we got kicked out of the garden. Perhaps the key to re-entry is simply thinking like Chauncy the Gardener and recognizing that we’re pests right now. And we don’t need to be, we could be stewards.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Will Truman says:

        ” Climate change from green-house gases, plastics in the ocean, the acidification of the ocean, loss of habitats for monarch butterflies are all symptoms of over population, if you will.”

        Even if population were absolutely stable we’d still have all those bad things you mentioned, as everyone in Central and Southern Asia decided that they wanted a modern American standard of living (and all the power-generation needs that standard requires.)Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Will Truman says:

        @jim-heffman you’re absolutely correct.

        Doesn’t that mean that the people who created the problem in the fist place — who burnt so much carbon and made so much plastic — are responsible? Shouldn’t we be the ones who have to help clean up our acts and don’t we have an obligation to those people in southeast Asia to find better choices and options?

        I don’t blame those people for doing what we did; I think the blame rests upon our shoulders, you and me. That, it seems to me, is why we’d really be better offer actually talking about the problem and not pretending it doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter or is the will of God.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Will Truman says:

        “don’t we have an obligation to those people in southeast Asia to find better choices and options? ”

        They already know what the better choices and options look like, because we’ve been putting them into effect for the past thirty years. But coal power with no soot capture is cheap, dumping sewage in the river is cheap, cars without catalytic converters are cheap.

        “Doesn’t that mean that the people who created the problem in the fist place — who burnt so much carbon and made so much plastic — are responsible? ”

        The US was the first country to meet its Kyoto goals, and it didn’t even sign the treaty. What’s left?Report

  9. Avatar Dand says:

    A few problems with the article:

    1) It asked considered the opinions of all scientists in all areas regardless of where they specialize; why scientists opinions should only have more meaning in areas of their expertise (biologists don’t have any particular insight into the safety of oil drilling that question should have been limited to petroleum geologists and others close to the field).
    2) Is presented the AAAS as representing all scientists
    3) It asked scientists questions on ethics rather than just science (someone can for example believe that vaccines work but that it is still wrong for government to coerce people into using them and that position would not be anti-science).Report

  10. Avatar Kazzy says:

    The 538 analysis mentioned some interesting points, namely:

    1.) Some scientists were weighing in on topics that were not necessarily within their field of expertise.
    2.) Some of the topics drifted firmly from “What do we know about this?” to “What should we do about this?”

    “Do vaccines cause autism?” is a question that can be answered via the scientific method.
    “Should we require vaccination?” is a policy question that is, in part, based upon the answer to the previous question but moves into areas where we may — *MAY* — not want to trust scientists as much as we did on the prior question.Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Kazzy says:

      ““Do vaccines cause autism?” is a question that can be answered via the scientific method.”

      Unless the scientists are paid by the industry, of course, in which case they’re obviously lying.

      Just like the scientists who claim that fracking isn’t a problem and that American cars aren’t causing global warming. Bought and paid for liars, all of them.Report

  11. Avatar Will Truman says:

    @dand and @kazzy As an aside, I do think we’re headed to the point where “I believe that vaccinations are good, but shouldn’t be mandatory” will be increasingly responded to and treated as though you said “Vaccines shouldn’t be mandatory (and are no good).”Report

  12. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    I’m going to start by saying that this poll isn’t very thoughtful. A physicist won’t necessarily know any more about pesticides or genetic modification or global population growth than an average person, and a biologist wouldn’t necessarily have any more knowledge about fracking or nuclear power plants than typical person.

    For the record, I have a BSc in biology and thus technically count as a scientist. And on almost all points, I agree with the scientists.

    Topics where I’m with the scientists

    Yes, it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods

    Yes, I favour use of animals in research. Animal trials are widely necessary to develop new medications.

    Yes, it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides. My position on this is less because I have an in-depth knowledge of the biochemistry of pesticides (I don’t) than because I trust the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, and they monitor this sort of thing on a regular basis:

    Yes, humans have evolved over time.

    Yes, childhood vaccines such as MMR should be required.

    Yes, climate change is mostly due to human activity.

    Yes, favour building more nuclear power plants – but not in places prone to large earthquakes.

    Opposed to more offshore drilling.

    Astronauts aren’t essential to the US space program. The US space program isn’t really essential either. The space program in general is overrated. Unless we discover an exception to the theory of relativity, real space exploration isn’t happening. There’s no possible way that it would be cheaper and easier to make Mars or the moon habitable than it would be to conserve and improve the conditions on Earth. For increasing our scientific knowledge of space, sending machines to take readings is easier and more effective than sending human beings.

    Yes, I favour increased use of bioengineered fuel. Not corn: that’s had a horrible effect on global food prices and on global hunger, and it’s about the least efficient crop possible. Better fuel crops, or bioengineered algae, are much better options.

    Opposed to increased use of fracking. I don’t have a ton of knowledge about this, but 1) we need more renewable energy sources, not more fossil fuels; 2) it’s an enormous waste of water; and 3) when people’s tap water is catching on fire, there’s definitely a problem.

    Topic where I’m with the general population

    Growing world population will not necessarily be a major problem; it depends on our actions. Invariably, fertility rates go down as prosperity rises. Fertility rates have been declining for every region and continent of the world: in 1960, the global fertility rate was 4.9; in 1980, it was 3.7; in 2000, it was 2.7; currently, it’s 2.2, which is only a little above replacement rate. Increase standards of living (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, which has by far the highest birth rates), and population growth will be very manageable. I agree with Will that the flat yes/no question on this issue lacks nuance and might be creating a larger apparent division than really exists.

    Not sure
    Space station has been good investment for US? I don’t have enough knowledge about the space station to know what practical benefits anyone has gotten out of it and how they compare to its costs (although I do like Chris Hadfield). In general, as I’ve said above, I tend to think the space program is a waste of money.Report

    • Avatar morat20 in reply to KatherineMW says:

      NASA published a quarterly or annual report on spin-off technologies and space-research.

      It’s a good guide to what’s being done, and what use it has down on Earth.

      Problem is about 99% of the ‘news-worthy’ stuff is “Learning about X, for a long-term mission to Mars!”. That’s a lot more interesting than “Six month experiment involving slowly growing crystals offers key insights into material engineering” to the average person, so you hear a lot about ‘Preparing for Mars!” and very little about honey-bees, fruit flies, vacuum exposure, zero-g manufacturing experiments, or other things that are really darn useful to engineers and scientists on earth.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to morat20 says:

        This. Not just NASA, either. Almost any government program that supports R&D. About 1/4 of pharma successes rest on research gummint paid for, and private corporations and individuals and share holders and patients profited from.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to morat20 says:

        “About 1/4 of pharma successes rest on research gummint paid for”

        The government may have paid for microprocessors and TCP/IP, but that doesn’t mean the government created the iPhone.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to morat20 says:

        The government may have paid for microprocessors and TCP/IP, but that doesn’t mean the government created the iPhone.
        Absolutely. But how good’s your iPhone without either of those? 🙂

        The government tends to fund what you might call ‘fundamental’ research. Stuff that, if it has an immediate profitability, tends to be entirely accidental. Generally, it’s discoveries that are taken by engineers (and combined with other discovers and other stuff) to turn into something profitable.

        Private concerns generally don’t go for such basic R&D, because while it’s useful and leads to amazing things — it’s scattershot as all get out. MAYBE it produces something work billions. Maybe it just produces some data. Maybe that plus another thing three years later plus ANOTHER thing from a lab in France makes something awesome that can be sold for money. Who knows?

        It’s why government funds it, and private concerns do R&D in a much more focused way. (Bell Labs being as close to an exception as you can get in the for-profit world, and even they were very narrowly focused on their product — even if they did do basic research as well.)

        Government didn’t invent your iPhone. Government just paid for a lot of the knowledge engineers used to build it.Report

    • Avatar Guy in reply to KatherineMW says:

      “sending machines to take readings is easier and more effective than sending human beings.”

      Physicist in training here –

      This is just wrong. Having been to a talk on the Curiosity rover by the guy running the project and heard what he had to say on the topic, a human would probably take about a day to do everything Curiosity has done on Mars, not counting long distance travel times. A robot’s way cheaper than a human, but the human is also vastly more capable at any task more complicated than assemblyline work, unless there’s a need for extreme precision.Report

  13. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    A personal nit — the fundamental question in each case is “Should we turn the engineers lose with this piece of science?” No one is debating whether plant scientists sequencing the genome of various plants and identifying what gives them particular properties is dangerous — they’re debating whether it’s a good idea to let the plant engineers start splicing genes in willy-nilly. This is the same complaint I make about the meme of the mad scientist — almost none of them do science, they do mad engineering.

    [Disclosure: While I claim that I’m a systems analyst (in the sense that term was used before the computer geeks commandeered it), most people would probably say “Yeah, he’s a mad engineer.”]Report

    • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Michael Cain says:

      “they’re debating whether it’s a good idea to let the plant engineers start splicing genes in willy-nilly. ”

      Inserting genes is something that people do systematically, with a clear understanding of what is being added and where in the genome, and with a good idea of what’s going to result from it.

      They don’t just jam any old thing in anywhere just to see if something cool happens.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        your comment assumes sanity on the part of the engineers. NEVER mistake a religious nutcase for a sane person.

        One of the 1001 ways Humans can Kill Humanity: Attempt to create a bioweapon to kill the Jews.Report

      • Avatar Jim Heffman in reply to Jim Heffman says:

        They might also try to drill for undersea soil and fracture the crust and cause a methane clathrate explosion!Report

      • @jim-heffman , you’re right, and “willy-nilly” is not appropriate. OTOH, everyone seems to have been surprised by how quickly Round-Up resistance has been bred into certain weed populations. And there are now examples of the two strains of herbicide-resistant canola cross-breeding and producing a variant that no one designed or tested. Canola is also capable of cross-breeding with several weed species, which can in turn cross-breed with other species. It’s a large complex system out there, and there will almost certainly be unintended interactions.Report

  14. Avatar Kolohe says:

    I like that the scientists are nearly 40 points to the positive on the America! Fish Yeah! question than the general public is.Report

  15. Avatar North says:

    I’m confused by your position on MMR Will, do you generally just oppose requirements for vaccines? I mean obviously any vaccine requirement would have a medical reason opt out- that’s given. Personally, considering the horrific growth and vaccine know nothingism I’m unhappily in favor of requiring vaccination in order to, at the very minimum, consume or utilize government services.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to North says:


      How do you define “government services”? I’m okay with requiring it for public school. I’m not okay with requiring it for people who want to avail themselves of, say, the SNAP program.

      The public school requirement is about the only enforcement mechanism I have heard yet that I am comfortable. I am not okay with jailing parents or taking away children over vaccination. And not because I don’t fully support that everyone with a functional immune system getting vaccinated. But because it is such an extreme step that hopefully other paths can be identified.Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Kazzy says:

        I think I sit slightly more to the authoratarian side than you Kazzy. I’m similarily uninterested in taking kids away or jailing parents over vaccination but I could be relatively comfortable with vaccination being a requirement for the SNAP program. Then again vaccination op outs aren’t demographically concentrated in populations that use SNAP so I’m open to it being considered ineffective. But the principle of requiring vaccination to use public services and spaces strikes me as reasonable.Report

      • Avatar morat20 in reply to Kazzy says:

        I find the public school one to be a nice compromise. You can home school your kids if it bothers you so much. You just have to decide how important it is to you not to vaccinate your kids. Life’s full of trade-ofs like that.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to Kazzy says:

        Is there a possibility of segregated public schooling?Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to North says:

      @north This is where the particulars matter. I support doing just about everything we can to encourage vaccination short of either (a) criminal or civil action or (b) tinkering with government benefits, especially when they are not directly related to vaccination. So we agree on (a).

      On (b), the only government “benefit” that really comes to mind is public schooling. I put benefit in quotes because school attendance is, short of homeschooling, compulsory. As long as attending school is a right and a requirement, I consider that incompatible with attaching conditions on it. I also think that “We’ll let them homeschool” to be insufficient.

      Now, since school is related to vaccination (it puts other children, and adults, at risk), I do have some flexibility here. In case of an outbreak, I don’t mind saying “Keep your kid home, we’ll send them their school work. You’ll have to help them figure it out.” But I’d really rather not go further than that.

      As I said initially, though, the particulars do matter. I support a “mandate” insofar as its something people can seek and obtain an exemption from. California recently signed into law a requirement that you consult a physician before doing so, and I support that as well. I’m also open to a means-tested fine (the proceeds of which can go to helping those who want vaccinations get them).

      If the threat becomes sufficiently realized and the problem does not self-correct (Measles providing its own argument, as Morat says), and further steps are required, then do it. But I’m not there yet (and in case anyone is curious, I’ve been in a county with a pertussis outbreak. And, I should add, my wife works on the front lines so the prospect of future outbreaks really is quite scary to us).Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Will Truman says:

        Okay I think I’m clear, so you’re basically on board with the California option. I’m okay if unenthusiastic with that response. It’s possible that the simple inconvenience of having to jump through the hoops will push people back to vaccination and if it works then I’ll sign on happily.

        If it doesn’t, though, I’d say that vaccines being mandatory to use public schools should be the next minimal logical step. Yeah home schooling is difficult but some innocent third party kid who’s too young or immunocompromised shattering their ribs from whooping cough or crushing their own brain from measles induced swelling is a whole hell of a lot more difficult. If parents simply must have their plague bombs then they should at least keep them minimally contained.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:

        Any of these solutions run the risk of doubling down ‘punishment’ on the children. Not only do they carry an increased risk of illness, but we’re going to deny them school or necessary financial assistance?

        That is my hesitation with the mandate. Not that I don’t think we should do everything in our power to vaccinate children. I’m just not sure how we can exercise that authority.Report

      • Not just the inconvenience, but there are also categories within the people who don’t vaccinate who are:

        (a) Conflict-averse to the point that having to be lectured by a doctor about it will be something to avoid. Having to confront it.

        (b) Maybe can have their mind changed. The die-hards won’t, of course, but there is misinformation that can be corrected for more passive types. (The non-vaxxers instead of anti-vaxxers, if you will.)Report

  16. Avatar James K says:

    One problem with this survey is that several of the question aren’t pure questions of science – the desirability of fracking or drilling, mandating vaccines (and that one’s pretty vague too) and the merits of space exploration all contain “ought” propositions as well as “is” ones.

    Also the population one is at least as much a social science question. I’m with the commoners on that one, but I have reason to think I know better than the scientists there.Report

  17. Avatar Damon says:

    I’m not sure how the space station can be considered an “investment”. Have we seen any financial dividends? Don’t think so. It’s the same as folks saying they “invested in a new pair of shoes”. Note I’m using the term investment as a purely financial basis, because, frankly, if you can’t monetize what you get out of the expenditure, it ain’t an investment.

    Generally agree with the scientists on the remaining list except as noted above and with astronauts being essential, and global warming.Report