Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Friedman is Right for Once

Holy mackerel! Thomas Friedman actually wrote something sensible in this don't-escalate-in-Afghanistan column. More than sensible, actually. A must read. (If only he had had this attitude leading up to the war in Iraq...)

Money quote:

The message: “People do not change when we tell them they should,” said the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum. “They change when they tell themselves they must.”

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Thank You, Scientist

So, H1N1 is officially a national emergency, and vaccine production is not where it should be. Count as unworried Bill Maher, who, on his show last week told a flabbergasted Bill Frist that people should not take the vaccine because it is net harmful. In fact, the questioning of the scientific establishment by what I'll call populist lay "science" seems to be an, er, epidemic. (Examples include the linkage of other vaccines to autism and most notably the denial of global warming and evolution.) What is the proper role of the lay person when it comes to science?

In my opinion, it's one of complete deferral on scientific matters. However, the laity has an important part to play with respect to evaluating the social impacts of science. This part is especially important when enthusiasm might lead scientists to sweep larger social considerations under the rug. For example, lay worries about the potential moral pitfalls of human gene therapy strike me as valid and legitimate. I also think it's appropriate for laypersons to weigh in on economic considerations relating to science, particularly if it's government science we're talking about. Most of us would consider cost-benefit objections to, for example, a manned mission to Mars, to be legitimate (regardless of whether they're right or wrong). We should also criticize and question scientists if claims they offer are scientific really aren't. A great example of this is overutilization in the health care system; it is legitimate to worry that the amount of care prescribed by a physician is motivated by profit rather than expertise.

But the fact of the matter is most of us don't have enough expertise to evaluate the actual science of vaccines (less so global warming, and less less so evolution). In fact, it seems that the lay questioning of these theories can often be traced to some other ideological commitment - skepticism (bordering on paranoia) of the drug establishment on Maher's part or Christian doctrine on the part of evolution doubters.

I suppose I am granting scientists almost priest-like status. Bad when that's combined with the fact that the scientific establishment has, in the past, believed things that are just plumb crazy. But the operative word is "almost." Science contains within it the self-limiting safety valves of verifiability and falsifiability, unlike religion. Science is prepared to be wrong.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Pickle series entitled "Treating people like people." Voting Rights Edition

Many people – and I was one of them until two days ago – don’t know that non-citizens for the most part had the right to vote in this country until the middle of the 19th century. I discovered this while reading for a class I have this semester at the Kennedy School, called “Reasoning for History.”

That only citizens can vote is an orthodoxy that is rarely questioned. Question it, though, and it is at least apparent that it should be questioned. My neighbor is a permanent legal resident whose kids go to the Cambridge public schools. Shouldn’t she be allowed to vote for the school committee? I try to imagine an argument for why she shouldn’t, and I suddenly remember the debate I bellicosely and ungracefully got into a few years ago with a Republican friend of a friend at a bar in Washington about why DC should or should not have representation in Congress. I dared him to answer the question, and he took a deep breath, and then began “DC was never intended to be…” and seconds later I had to be peeled off the ceiling.

My permanent-resident neighbor is only the least ambiguous on an increasingly ambiguous spiral staircase of cases asking who should be allowed to vote in what elections. But her case is really unambiguous; there is no standard by which she is not a fully interested member of our community who should be allowed to have a say in how she is governed.

Recently, some cities have allowed non-citizens to vote in local elections. It’s a movement we should all pay attention to and encourage.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A great choice by the Nobel Committee

Charitably, giving the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama for the reasons it was given was naively aspirational and politically stupid. But the Nobel Committee redeemed itself a teeny tiny bit today (though I imagine it’s a different Nobel Committee) by giving the economics prize to one of my intellectual and academic heroes, Elinor Ostrom.

Ostrom, a political science professor at Indiana University, is the author of Governing the Commons, a book I first read in college, and then re-read a few years ago. Her work was the first to encourage me to think deeply about what the “commons problem” nature of climate change means for the parameters of the problem and the hope of solving it. It is still the book that influences me most when I think about a bit of climate policy and ask the question “Is this going to help? Is this going to work?”

Of note, Ostrom is also the first woman to win the economics prize, and the fifth woman to win a Nobel this year, which is a record for a single year. So congratulations to Elinor Ostrom, who bent the arc of history a bit today, and whose life’s work may yet bend it quite a bit more.