Glenn Beck: multitasking tool

By Phil Plait | November 30, 2007 12:01 pm

Wow! Glenn Beck is more talented than I thought. Not only is he a complete and utter tool over global warming (which we already knew), he is also a tool about astronomy, too!

First, read what Pamela wrote about the overhyped news that observing the dark energy of the Universe may hasten its demise.

Then, read what Glenn Beck had to say about this topic.

Here is one small part of Beck’s doofosity:

GLENN: I know I wasn’t in my car observing dark matter. I wasn’t in my giant SUV observing dark matter. The scientists were. Don’t blame me, scientists. Oh, I’ve got my little SUV that’s going to make the world a little hotter. You’re collapsing the universe! Which one of us suck [sic] more for nature? I’m only wrecking the planet. You’ve destroyed the entire universe! Thanks a lot!

Now, first off, Beck means dark energy, not dark matter. When you don’t understand the difference between energy and matter, then maybe you shouldn’t be using them to joke about global warming. Of course, I know that a lot of folks don’t understand much about dark energy and dark matter, but then, a lot of folks wouldn’t use them as a springboard to say other dumb stuff — and a lot of folks don’t have a national radio show where they can spout their ignorance, either. And the fact that he says "dark matter" about 50 times doesn’t help much. It’s not like it’s difficult to find easy-to-understand info on dark matter.

But despite his ignorance, he is trying to be clever and make this big deal about how global warming doesn’t exist either. The impact of his "satire" would be strengthened somewhat if he had any clue at all about what he’s talking about, but that’s true of pretty much everything he says. And the ultimate irony, perhaps, is that global warming is tied in very closely with energy production– so if he had gotten the dark energy part right, there would have been more room to make jokes.

It’s too bad. When I read it, I thought he was going to make some relatively funny point about scientists and science and astronomy… but I should have known the way it would really go down. I’m surprised that all the wrong things he said in that one segment didn’t collapse into a black hole and destroy the Earth. Certainly, if enough people listen to him, that end will be achieved anyway.

And a final note: yes, I know it’s just a joke. But sometimes dumbness in all its myriad forms needs to be pointed out.


Tip o’ the lens cap to Sam Harrelson. I almost hate to break it to him that the clip he posted was from a piece of pseudoscientific dreck.

Comments (58)

  1. Well, expecting keen satire from such a blunt instrument is something like expecting to squeeze blood from a stone, Doctor.

    And yes, the pun in the previous sentence was intentional. It just flowed.

  2. Daffy

    The Centipede is clearly laboring in vein.

  3. My blood gives berth to an entirely new meaning to “occupying space.”

  4. Only thing wrong in your post was that Glenn Beck’s dumbness needed to be pointed out. I thought that it was glaringly obvious..?

  5. “doofosity”?

    I always thought the correct term was “dooficity”.

  6. You’ve already busted a few caps into the barrel-dwelling fish named Glen Beck. Not much point in continuing, is there? He’s a glorified troll, and one should not feed the trolls.

  7. Mark

    Brad,

    I’m fairly new to your blog, and I find much of it interesting. I’m also in agreement with the basic principles of what is today called “skepticism.” James Randi, for instance, is a hero of mine. So I was very surprised to see a few references in your postings to global warming which were conspicuously lacking in any skepticism about the many claims being made on that front. You’ve accurately harpooned some of the stupidity on the anti-GW side, but I see no indication that you have any reservations about what the IPCC/Al Gore coalition is selling us. Maybe I just haven’t found the right postings yet. What’s your take?

    What do you think, for instance, of the Michael Mann “hockey stick” fiasco, and the work of Stephen McIntyre at climateaudit.org, and does it give you any pause about the scientific methodology and/or level of objectivity being employed within the IPCC? What other sources of information do you find credible on either side?

    Mark

  8. Brown

    Yes, Beck made a joke.

    All it lacked was any trace of cleverness or wit or insight or punch line.

    But other than those minor shortcomings, it was a perfectly fine joke.

  9. Damn. My half-hearted attempt to turn the comments into a string of witty puns rather than “BECK IS A DOOFUS” failed miserably.

    It is interesting to note, though, that it’s “Beck is a doofus, so what else is new.”

  10. PK

    “When you don’t understand the difference between energy and matter, then maybe you shouldn’t be using them to joke about global warming.”

    Dangerous, Phil! E=mc2! ;-)

  11. PK

    That should be mc^2, of course…

  12. > Brad?

    I think we’ve reached a new low in screwing up Doctor Plait’s name.

    I now dub him Bradley Bredbasquet, Ph.D.

  13. Ed

    Mark,

    Who’s Brad?

    Ed.

  14. Carey

    My thoughts too, Supernova. Someone hasn’t done their research. In more ways than one.

  15. Chip

    Maybe he was addressing the “Brad Astronomer”. ;)

    The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) issued a comprehensive report on the state of global warming and basically concluded that global warming is a fact and that it is “very likely” caused primarily by human activity. This alone was enough to upset the neo-con corporatists.

  16. Irishman

    Glen Beck may be a moron, but he’s a high-profile moron with a large megaphone and the ability to reach millions. Kinda like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell – loud, obnoxious, and yet somehow miraculously still taken seriously by a certain crowd. He’s kinda like Anne Coulter but with a pe– no wait, I think she has one of those, too.

    So it’s perfectly reasonable for Phil to call Beck out on his doofosity (doofasisity? doofiness?)

  17. John

    I hope this works out better for you than your pathetic attempts to get Stephen Colbert’s attention. :P

  18. ABR

    “I always thought the correct term was ‘dooficity’.

    I think you are referring to the term “dooflicity”, which is defined as attempting to be sneaky and underhanded, but not quite having the smarts to pull it off.

  19. tacitus

    Yes, Beck made a joke.

    All it lacked was any trace of cleverness or wit or insight or punch line.

    But other than those minor shortcomings, it was a perfectly fine joke.

    Ah, yes, always the excuse of those who say stupid things…

    “I was only joking!!”

    I guess if you call lame attempts at satire on subjects you barely understand humor, then you could say that Beck does comedy.

    But given the content of his show, there are only two possibilities with Beck. Either he is a world’s greatest comedian and nobody has noticed, or he’s an ignorant buffoon of a pundit and nobody cares.

    No guess as to which is by far the more likely option.

  20. Brant D

    Mark: What “hockey stick fiasco”? Last time I checked the basic “hockey stick” shape is prominent in many independently-calculated global average temperature records. Unless by “fiasco” you mean the miserably failed attempts to discredit Mann’s work.

  21. anony

    “And a final note: yes, I know it’s just a joke. But sometimes dumbness in all its myriad forms needs to be pointed out.”

    Exactly Phil, like this post of yours.

  22. anony

    Oh Brant D. What independent records that? The ones co-authored by Mann or that use his results as input? No Bristlecones = No hockey-stick. Simple as that.

  23. jmd

    Let’s just exhibit some healthy skepticism of Mark actually knowing what’s going on and leave it at that.

    And is Beck also trying to cram some quantum toolishness into that quote, too? I’m afraid to go read the whole thing, but from that blurb it looks like he’s spouting the whole “But don’t you change it by looking at it because that’s what the Uncertainty Principle says?” bunch of dreck as well. I mean, I almost have to admire someone who can be a doofus on THREE pseudoscientific fronts at once!

  24. bigjohn

    The only thing more stupid than Glenn Beck is Nancy Grace. Neither has a clue…

  25. Glenn Beck IS a tool… i like your use of succinct derogatory lexicon!

    He is still part of the system, a right winger still plugged into the matrix …. he’s worse than Rush L. in some respects.

    Not only is he a poltical Toolio , his science is retarded.

    Speaking of politics, not trying to go off on a strange tangent here… but Glenn Beck is PART of a conspiracy actually..

    just do a google on Bohemian Grove.

    If you want , you can watch several items on Google video or youtube, where there is actualy video / photo evidence of people such as : Glenn Beck and several other neo-con TV show hosts, David Gergen- presidential advisor to Bill Clinton, Ronald Regan, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, Kissinger, Tony Blair, Koffi Annan just to name a few… they all attend a yearly ceremony (in which they do a human sacrifice) in Sonoma County California , at a place called the Bohemian grove.

    The ceremony is called “the cremation of cares”, in which a human body is burnt beneath a 50 foot stone owl statue of the ancient Babolonian God Moloch. The body represents all the “cares” of these world leaders, cares about all the bad things they did over the past year.

    This has been taking place since the mid 1800’s .. FDR, Truman, Roosevelt, Carnagie, Rockafeller, eisenhower… were all self proclaimed members of Bohemian Grove… none of these people deny it, in fact they admit to going, but their excuse is that the “human sacrifice” isn’t real, its just an effigy, and the ceremony is just “a play”.

    After watching this evidence showing both parties to be complicit in planning world events at this place, and furthermore to be human sacrificing Moloch worshippers who are not the “good” people they pretend to be— if you still cling to your party there is no hope for you.

    Watch it and weap for your country… if you thought creationists were bad, i can only imagine what you think of druidic pagan Republicans and Democrats killing people because their religion says to.

    video link to info on the bohemian grove:

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1358319439993514946&q=dark+secrets&total=3687&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=1

  26. Peter

    Is anyone else as creeped out and disturbed by the news that a book Beck “wrote” is supposedly debuting at #1 on the NYT bestseller list this week?

  27. I don’t blame the BA for pointing out the doofosity of Glenn Beck (sorry, dooficity). Sometimes a darkness within you compels you to throw the remote control at perfectly fine, brand new flatscreen TV. So instead you put it in your blog.

    Catharsis! Thy name is the internets!

  28. > Bohemian Grove

    Oh please.

    You’ll be talking about Masonic conspiracies next.

  29. anony

    Exactly my point Brant, none of those ‘corroborating’ studies you linked to are actually independent. Do a little research. The ones that don’t explicitly use Bristlecones do so surrepticiously by incorporating Manns PC1 series, which is derived from and depends upon Bristlecones. No Bristlecones, no hockey-stick.

  30. Wayne

    I hate to even wade into this one, but I feel compelled to point out for the sake of fairness that Beck’s Anti-GW comments here (and elsewhere) are primarily about the proposed solutions, rather than the actual science. I happen to think that building nuclear power plants and getting off foreign oil is a good thing as well, just don’t expect to learn any science from him.

    And to Mike J: Please say that you’re joking.

  31. tacitus

    > Re: Bohemian Grove

    Oh please, indeed.

    I live in Austin, and have watched the “rise” of conspiracy rant artist Alex Jones from the days when the only thing he was on was mid-afternoon cable access TV.

    One slow summer a few years ago I followed up on a couple of his New World Order conspiracy theories, just to see how reliable all the documentation he always claims is “out there for you to read” was.

    Well, sure the news reports he cites are “out there”, and you can Google them all, but they never, ever add up to anything close to the evidence for subversive conspiracies he claims they point to.

    One particular pet theory of his is that FEMA is building concentration camps to hold hundreds of thousands of citizens once the federal government imposes marshal law, and that plans are already being drawn up to use the inmates of those camps for forced labor.

    The evidence? Well, after a bit of searching, I found the documents he was claiming as solid evidence. A couple of regular news articles about plans to use state prisoners for some sort of organized work detail in a factory outside the prison somewhere in the middle of Oklahoma or some other mid-western state, I forget exactly where. Really, the so-called was so lame, it was pathetic.

    The same pattern repeats with all his claims. The evidence never comes close to adding up.

    It is somewhat entertaining to watch Alex Jones when he gets angry and works himself up into a lather over something or other. All on his own he starts raising his voice until he is yelling at the camera, his face going bright red. You would swear that he’s about to have a seizure.

    Otherwise he’s a waste of space. Kind of like Glenn Beck, really.

  32. Quiet Desperation

    Meanwhile, thousands are protesting in the streets of Khartoum calling for the death of a teacher for doing… nothing. She named a teddy bear Mohammed? Well, no, turn out a student did that.

    Sometimes one is reminded of the much bigger problem in this world. Bigger than some jackass on CNN. Bigger than some creationist dummy in Texas.

  33. PK

    QD, the troubles for the British school teacher in Sudan and the creationism battle in the US are actually related: it’s called religious fundamentalism.

  34. Slide2112

    Funny how this thread has made full circle. The problem is the religious nature of debate about anything! Science is supposed to be above that, but it too devolves to a religious war as seen by this site! This very site that is titled Bad Astronomy. Lord save us boy matter and energy are the same thing so sit down and be humbled. Dark matter, dark energy the point is…

    Man made global warming is not a scientific fact. It isn’t! There are reasons to believe that global warming is occurring, and it makes sense that we have something to do with it, but there is good science to say that it just might not be so. Key here is might not. Science. The debate is still on.

    But that also is not the point. We need to do better with managing our resources because we can and it is the right thing to do. We need to protect the natural world because it is worth of protecting.

    And by the way, there are sects of Islam that teach blowing up yourself in order to kill as many of your fellow humans around you as possible is Gods will. There is no comparison with U.S. Creationist.

    Ya’ll have drunk the coolaid…wake up, it is a beautifull day, life is good and then you die. And quess, that’s good too!

  35. PK

    … and there are sects of fundamental christians that murder doctors who work in abortion clinics. I bet that this is the same demographic the creationists come from (and many of the GW deniers for that matter).

    Both islamic and christian fundamentalists target people who disagree with them. That makes them all terrorists in my book.

  36. > I bet that this is the same demographic the creationists come from (and many of the GW deniers for that matter).

    Hmmm. Dare I posit that there is a continuum of fundamentalism and activism (just like everything else) and so the equation of creationists or AGW skeptics to… abortion clinic bombers is perhaps something of a canard?

  37. PK

    Nowhere do I call creationists abortion clinic bombers (ACB) per se. But every form of terrorism requires a base of sympathizers. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that creationists are to the ACB what Sinn Fein is to the IRA.

  38. I think it’s more of a stretch to say that than to say people who are, I don’t know, against abortion are perhaps a more likely base of sympathizers. That they have thematic links to creationists through religion is equivalent to saying that you and I are one and the same because we choose to debate issues on Doctor Plait’s website.

  39. PK

    OK, I left a step out: clearly, the base of sympathizers for ACBs are people who are against abortion in some dogmatic way (I hope you don’t misconstrue my point to mean that all who are against abortion are terrorists, that is not what I mean). Having seen Fox News more often that I would have liked to, I have the strong impression that there is a large overlap between these dogmatic sympathizers, fundamental christians, and by implication: creationists. A large number of these people also seem to prefer to deny the existence of global warming, or at the very least the anthropogenic variation (FYI, I have lived in California for two years, and this is my strong impression).

  40. My question is why does the support have to be dogmatic in nature, and is this dogma of ideology or dogma of some sort of written law? There are plenty of people who, say, support protecting the environment, some with and without the underlying ‘proof’ of some sort of dogmatic text, and using your logic, they’re responsible for the eco-terrorists who spike trees so chainsaws will break and kill loggers. If we’re talking true Christian (let’s not beat bushes) dogmatists here, then not only will they be fervently against abortion but they will also be fervently against property destruction and murder for more or less the exact same reasons.

    Basically, then, those who support (as ideology, mind, not science) AGW and environmental protection have a broad overlap with evolution and, by association, secularism, therefore secularists are responsible by association for the actions of ecoterrorists? Sorry, but I just don’t buy it. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander: abortion clinic bombers are for the most part disowned by their ideological supporters (anti-choice) just as quickly, if not more faster, than ecoterrorist organizations are disowned by their ideological supporters (the green movement). That activists have a less activist support base is somewhat true, but it starts to strain the bounds of credulity to consider all non-activists as responsible through inaction for the acts of activists.

  41. Quiet Desperation

    PK: It’s a question of magnitude. I’d elaborate, but I’m posting from a Wii. :) It’s about 5 words a minute via pointing at an on screen keyboard.

  42. …and now I have the giggles.

    *bloop* “Q…” *bloop* “U…” *bloop* “E…” *bloop* “S…” *bloop* “T… frell, that’s Y! Backspace…” *bloop*

  43. Methane Mike says that the warmers and so called skeptics alike ignore electrics in such a way that it makes Glenn Beck look like a lefty with his mixed darkness analogy.

  44. Mark

    Sorry, I don’t know how “Brad” got into my head. I’m sure somehow from the “b..ad” in “BadAstronomy”. Still a fair question though, no?

  45. Quiet Desperation

    *bloop* “Q…” *bloop* “U…” *bloop* “E…” *bloop* “S…” *bloop* “T… frell, that’s Y! Backspace…” *bloop*

    That’s about right.

    I think the Wii browser will be more useful when I get my 60″ TV.

  46. Do they make a wireless keyboard peripheral for it?

    And if not, why not?

  47. Brant D

    anony: While the objects used to generate proxy data themselves might be shared, the methodologies used to generate temperature time series from those objects are independent.

    And bristlecones are not the only objects used. Not by Mann, not by anyone else.

  48. Brent

    Man, this blog is just a bunch of rantings! I suppose, Phil can’t easily direct it into a meaningful dialogue all the time. So, my 2c is that:

    1) The article referenced by BA (on Pamela’s Star Stryder website) has in itself the SAME very “mistake” in which “dark matter” is quoted (at the end) rather than “dark energy”. Saying someone is “silly” because of a misstatement is childish and this is the main annoyance to me of reading the past year of Phil’s blogging. In the past it was informative and insightful. Now, he has crossed over into name caller and near-sighted GW “advocate”.

    2) I see no reasonable responses to points such as presented by Mark.

    3) GB is an ENTERTAINER! Geesh, he may have some influence, but the show is produced for entertainment value. Get over your political high-horse and note that it would be funny if observing our universe destroyed it (haha). Even the authors of the original paper wrote it as a humorous line.

    4) Comparing Islacisist terrorists who kill many thousands of civilians a year to the VERY FEW ACB incidents is foolish. There are indeed evil people hiding behind Christianity and they should be pointed out by all moral men & women, but there is no comparison against the current terror of the middle east and its philosophies.

    Hmmm, was that four cents?

  49. > Man, this blog is just a bunch of rantings!

    Why yes, yes it is. Isn’t that generally sort of the purpose of having a personal blog?

    1) Calling Glenn Beck “silly” is perhaps a kindness. I’m silly. Doctor Plait appears to enjoy silliness when he gets his picture taken. I don’t see it as much of an insult, and it’s probably much gentler than Doctor Plait’s true feelings on the matter.

    2) Probably because it requires agreement that there’s a hockey stick fiasco, which is as likely as there is to be agreement that some ancient book is the revealed word of God. “Reasonable responses” need at least some common ground to work off of; those who support Mann’s work will say that it isn’t broken; those who support McIntyre’s work will say that it is. Whoopie.

    3) “It’s just a joke” defense, and a tired and worn-out one at that. Yes, he was trying to make a politically-charged joke. It didn’t play in Peoria. That’s a matter of opinion and thus I’m going to have to ask you to deal with it.

    4) It’s perfectly reasonable to compare zealots of differing religions. As both the Qu’ran and the Bible are documents written through history, they represent the wildly varying means and environments of the people who wrote them. Because of this, anyone who has an agenda can back it up with “revealed” evidence: God said so, and God is summa bonum, so I not only can but should and must to be a good person. This can range from giving as much to charity as possible (Islam) and respecting family (Islam) and never converting by the sword (Islam) and never murdering at all (Islam) all the way to killing all the infidels for the greater glory of God (Islam). I can do the same thing to Christianity if you’d like.

  50. Mark

    Hi Centipede,

    Regarding:

    ——-
    2) Probably because it requires agreement that there’s a hockey stick fiasco, which is as likely as there is to be agreement that some ancient book is the revealed word of God. “Reasonable responses” need at least some common ground to work off of; those who support Mann’s work will say that it isn’t broken; those who support McIntyre’s work will say that it is. Whoopie.
    ——-

    With all due respect, your analogizing the “hockey stick” debate to a religious argument is … well … wrong. The reason that religious debates are unresolvable is that at least one side is substantially basing their viewpoint on something which can’t be empirically or logically verified. A good skeptic should know the difference between that and a real scientific or factual debate.

    What might make the truth of the Mann-McIntyre debate seem elusive is that it ultimately comes down to some figure-crunching which isn’t at all easy to do. And I’m the first to admit that I haven’t tackled it myself, because I don’t have enough time and I’d be hampered by not having a statistics background, which means I’d have a hefty learning curve on a lot of terminology and concepts that are at present out of my reach. That said, I understand McIntyre’s claims, at least in concept, and Mann’s published responses look a lot more like defensive redirection and intimidation than a direct answer to the substance of McIntyre’s argument. That gets my radar up, especially since Mann has the burden of proof, and his conclusion (the graph) has played prominently not only in a lot of political and media hype, but also in the third assessment report of the IPCC–an organization that most seem to be taking as authoritative on this subject.

    Still, not having run the numbers myself, I can’t claim certainty, which in part is why I’m interested in what people like Dr. Plait might have to say on the subject. From this site, I’ve picked up that he: 1) is sympathetic to the other camp, 2) is generally knowledgable and intelligent, and 3) seems to have the right attitude about science and skepticism. That makes him a very interesting person for me to query on the subject. And I certainly hope that if he takes the time to answer me, said answer will differ substantially from yours. :)

  51. > With all due respect, your analogizing the “hockey stick” debate to a religious argument is … well … wrong.

    Oh no, you misunderstand. It’s not that it isn’t essentially a debate on evidence. It’s that it has become a debate that’s taken the aspect of a religious argument. I take no stand on it as it’s not germane to my own views on the matter (I came across it after I made my decision and so it’s not important to me). The true believers of either side aren’t going to shift because of it, and thus the ‘common ground’ is universally denied.

    Also, note that I made it an analogy of probability, not a direct analogy. This was intentional.

    I can’t speak for Doctor Plait, but if previous data are any indication, he does not appear to be sympathetic to McIntyre’s claims and, while perhaps politely agnostic concerning McIntyre’s motivations, may hold the opinion that McIntyre is functionally a schill to established petrochemical interests and the AGW “denier” crowd. As for me, I feel that McIntyre is indeed well-meaning and a true skeptic, and that the Mann data, showing flaws, indicates that those flaws should be repaired rather than simply shouted down as not existing. Nonetheless, I think that constructive work towards reducing and reversing greenhouse gas emissions, with simultaneous work in adapting to a heating environment, is still an optimal method to go down whether or not global warming is primarily anthropogenic in nature. We can, at the very least, reduce our own impact and should a sudden global cooling trend occur, well, from empirical data not in the least related to Mann or bristlecones we’re better at heating things up than cooling them down.

  52. Mark

    >Oh no, you misunderstand. It’s not that it isn’t essentially a debate on evidence. It’s that it has become a debate that’s taken the aspect of a religious argument.

    Your clarification is appreciated and duly noted. I do think it’s important, however, to never yield to fanatics on either side, even if they have the loudest voices and create flame wars. That dynamic doesn’t erase the possibility that there is an important issue of substance underlying it all.

    I mostly raise the issue of Mann et al, not because I think it disproves AGW, but more because it helps to characterize what I think is going on in the IPCC and the climate science “community” in general. I’ve seen many indications that said community, as a whole, is rather incestuous, sloppy, and prone to beg the question as to whether we have something to worry about or not. I have a HUGE problem with the notion of “better to err on the side of ‘safety'”, which I think often translates into: don’t worry so much about being accurate, the imporant thing is to get everyone on board, since this is *obviously* a huge, important issue. There’s a religious furvor in the air, which doesn’t tend to aid the progress of accurate scientific investigation.

    The one question that I would like to see addressed that seems to be almost universally avoided is: what will be the *cost* of drastically altering our energy usage patterns by direct force of government legislation? And what, comparatively, would be the cost of adapting to gradual changes in climate (some of which would certainly be beneficial, at least in some locations) using whatever technology we can muster as we go? And from that perspective, what does “erring on the side of ‘safety'” really amount to?

    I also note, at least in the mainstream, the conspicuous absence of discussions such as:

    1) Let’s use more nuclear power; or
    2) Let’s investigate methods of artificially “scrubbing” or otherwise altering the atmosphere to counteract whatever effect we find that CO2 is having.

    And I conclude that those discussions will always remain on the fringe because those are *technological* and/or *market* solutions. And what is really driving this movement foreward are two completely unscientific ideas, one political, and one more fundamentally moral:

    1) Increasing government power over businesses and consumers is a good thing in itself (because businesses are greedy, consumers are stupid, and government is wise and well-motivated); and
    2) Man’s “footprint” on nature is inherently evil and should be reversed.

    As a thought experiment, ask yourself what modern-day environmentalists would be advocating if we could transport them back 200 years, prior to the industrial revolution. It certainly would have been “safer,” from the standpoint of environmental impact, to avoid all of the technological advances that occurred from then till now. Or let’s be less dramatic. Say that we imposed, 200 years ago, some “common sense” regulations requiring that all new major technologies had to achieve special governmentally-disbursed environmental permits, or be approved under the auspices of international bodies created by treaty. The textile mill, the steam engine, the light bulb, the automobile, the airplane, the assembly line, the computer, all would have had to wait for implementation until a large-scale environmental impact report could be provided and approved by political bodies, many of whose members might be hostile to the interests of whichever inventors, entrepreneurs or industrialists were involved. Can you imagine the cost? Try.

  53. Yes, I can easily imagine the cost. This is why the pie-in-the-sky back-to-the-trees movements are going to fail; Average Joe Schmo on the street doesn’t want his quality of living to go backwards. Humans aren’t wired that way, and so the response trend naturally be gradual and adaptive rather than abrupt and disruptive.

    Just for the record, I support nuclear power, as well as developing the space infrastructure for building solar power satellites, and that infrastructure will certainly be polluting in the short term, scrubbing technologies, and the general capacity of the market to adapt. However, absolutely free markets are just as bad as absolutely controlled markets for the simple fact that businesses, being superorganisms, are simple animals dedicated to increasing capital and those that don’t actively have and live up to “good corporate citizen” ideals subordinate all other concerns to making money. Some amount of government regulation is necessary, see the response to Upton Sinclair for a good example.

    That being said, the ‘international environmental vetting panel’ counterargument is something of a strawman because, to put it bluntly, it ain’t gonna happen. Rules are static; innovators tend to be dynamic and will find loopholes, one way or another. Besides, the monolithic ideological power bloc required for effective world governance of any sort still isn’t there, and given the human animal, isn’t likely to be there for some time.

  54. Mark

    Centipede,

    Ok, glad to know you see the errors of at least the extreme forms of green-think. And while I agree that the “back to nature” crowd can never really succeed in their *actual* goals, what worries me is that as their ethos becomes more and more mainstream, policy makers make more and more bad decisions to at least make it look like they are being friendly to their interests.

    As for free markets and Upton Sinclair, I have a very different take. In my judgement, by and large, regulation doesn’t correct problems created by the market. Rather, it generally tries to speed up or force solutions to problems, real or perceived, that the market has not yet solved, and creates a variety of different problems (always real) in the process, not to mention doing a poor job of solving the original problem. I don’t challenge at all the idea that businesses by and large act in their own perceived interests, disregarding (when possible) other considerations, nor do I harbor any illusions that they will always act in good faith, always do a good job, or always avoid harm to others. But the same can be said of any individual or institution, including regulatory agencies and government as a whole.

    Look at the FDA, since you mentioned Sinclair. The intention in creating that organization was to provide some protection against unhealthy business practices. What we have now is an organization that raises costs of production by billions of dollars in aggregate (which consumers pay for in the form of higher prices), keeps useful, even life-saving, products off the shelves for years, and still allows a great number of harmful products into the marketplace.

    The faulty thinking in such endeavors is that the problem is simple: just keep business in check. All we have to do is put up a stop sign when they get out of line, and then all will be well. But in fact, the real problem is far more complex: keeping business in check, in this context, necessitates making millions and millions of product safety decisions. It also forces a binary outcome (safe or not safe, allowed or not allowed) for what in many cases is a gray area (safe for some, not for others, acceptable risk for some, not for others, etc.) That’s a very hard problem to solve. To solve it well would require a good deal of innovation, a maturing of procedures and ideas over time, a constant upkeep of an ever-increasing knowledge base, good management skills, and probably a lot of other things I haven’t thought of. Because we’ve chosen a government solution to this problem in the form of an institution that is paid for with tax money and whose powers are written into law, what we get is a bad solution and a whole host of ancillary problems that will never go away and are guaranteed to get worse over time.

    And what did we have in the “before time”, when there was no FDA? We had some unscrupulous meat packing companies, and most likely some similar problems in other industries. As far as I know, we had no actual wide scale public health incidents–no one got sick or died–just the knowledge that the meat packers were not being sanitary. Now obviously that’s a real problem–but put it in perspective, and compare it to the problems I described above. (Incidentally, I can think of at least two *actual* public health problems involving meat in my lifetime, where people actually died, and this several decades after the creation of the FDA.) Also, consider that one of the motivations for creating the FDA at the time was that Sinclair’s book had so damaged the credibility of the meat industry that their sales were plummeting, and they needed the perception of government oversight to restore the faith of consumers at home and overseas. In other words, the market, left to its own devices, would have most likely dealt with the problem by ousting those that were misbehaving, but the government bailed them out.

    As a consumer, given the choice, I would vastly prefer the “before time.”

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