Monday, August 20, 2018

DeGrasse Tyson: Make Truth Great Again

Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets the following:
When people make comparisons with Orwell's "Ministry of Truth", he obtusely persists:
Given that Orwellian dystopias were the theme of this summer's DEF CON hacker conference, let's explore what's wrong with this idea.

Truth vs. "Truth"

I work in a corrupted industry, variously known as the "infosec" community or "cybersecurity" industry. It's a great example of how truth is corrupted into "Truth".

At a recent government policy meeting, I pointed out how vendors often downplay the risk of bugs (vulnerabilities that can be exploited by hackers). When vendors are notified of these bugs and release a patch to fix them, they often give a risk rating. These ratings are often too low, in order to protect the corporate reputation. The representative from Oracle claimed that they didn't do that, and that indeed, they'll often overestimate the risk. Other vendors chimed in, also claiming they rated the risk higher than it really was.

In a neutral world, deliberately overestimating the risk would be the same falsehood as deliberately underestimating it. But we live in a non-neutral world, where only one side is a lie, the middle is truth, and the other side is "Truth". Lying in the name of the "Truth" is somehow acceptable.

Moreover, Oracle is famous for having downplayed the risk of significant bugs in the past, and is well-known in the industry as being the least trustworthy vendor as far as security of their products is concerned. Much of their policy efforts in Washington D.C. are focused on preventing their dirty laundry from being exposed. They aren't simply another vendor promoting "Truth", but a deliberately exploiting "Truth" to corrupt ends.

That we should exaggerate the risks of cybersecurity, deliberately lie to people for their own good, is the uncontroversial consensus of our infosec/cybersec community. Most do it, few think this is wrong. Security is a moral imperative that justifies "Truth".

The National Academy of Scientists

So are we getting the truth or "Truth" from organizations like the National Academy of Scientists?

The question here isn't global warming. That mankind's carbon emissions warms the climate is truth. We have a good understanding of how greenhouse gases work, as well as many measures of the climate showing that warming is occurring. The Arctic is steadily losing ice each summer.

Instead, the question is "Global Warming", the claims made by politicians on the subject. Do politicians on the left fairly represent the truth, or are they the "Truth"?

Which side is the National Academy of Sciences on? Are they committed to the truth, or (like the infosec/cybersec community) are they pursuing "Truth"? Is global warming a moral imperative that justifies playing loose with the facts?

Googling "national academy of sciences climate change" quickly leads to this document: "Climate Change: Evidence and Causes". Let's skip past the basics and go directly to "hurricanes". It's a favorite topic among politicians, where every hurricane season they blame the latest damage on climate change. Is such blame warranted?

The answer is "no". There is not sufficient evidence to conclude hurricanes have gotten worse. There is good reason to believe they might get worse, after all, warmer oceans lead to more energy, but as far as we can tell, it hasn't happened yet. Moreover, when it does happen, the best theories point to hurricanes only becoming slightly worse. It's certainly worthy to add to future estimates of the costs of climate change, but it's not going to be catastrophic.

The above scientific document, though, punts on this answer, as shown in the below screenshot:

The document is clearly a political one. It's content is intended to refute any scientific claims made by Republicans, but not to offend Democrats. It is on the side of "Truth" not truth. If Obama blames hurricane damage on the oil companies, the National Academy of Sciences is going to politely dance around the issue.

Whenever I point out in conversation that the science is against somebody's claim about hurricanes, people ask me to cite my sources. This is exactly the source I would cite, but it's difficult. It's non-answer on hurricanes should be sufficient, after all, science. But since they prevaricate without being explicit on the issue, few accept this source.

Why this matters

Last year in the state of Washington, the Republicans put a carbon tax bill on the ballot in order to combat climate change. The Democrats shot it down.

The reason (for both actions) is that the tax was revenue neutral, meaning the added revenue from the carbon tax was offset by reduction in other taxes (namely, the sales tax). This matches the Republican ideology: they have no particular dispute with climate change as such, they just oppose expansion of government. If you can address climate change without increasing taxes or regulation, they have no principled reason to oppose it. Thus, revenue neutral carbon taxes are something Republicans will easily agree with. Even if they don't believe in global warming, they have no real opposition to replacing one tax with another.

Conversely, the Democrats don't care about solving climate change. Instead, their goal is to expand government, increasing taxes and regulation. They will reject any proposal to address climate change that doesn't match their ideological goals.

This description of what happened is extreme, of course. Things are invariably more nuanced than this. But there's still a kernel of truth here. This idea that one side is being ideological (denying climate change) and other side scientific is false. Both sides are equally ideological/scientific, just in different directions.

It's therefore not just Republican ideology here that is the sticking point, but also Democrat. As long as Democrats believe they don't have to compromise, because the "Truth" is on their side, they won't. Instead of agreeing on revenue neutral carbon taxes, they'll insist on that extra revenue subsidizing photovoltaic panels (or some such that increases total government taxes/spending). The National Academy of Sciences defending "Truth" is not helping the situation.


I believe in global-warming/climate-change, that mankind's carbon emissions are increasing temperatures and that we must do something about this. I drive an electric car, but more importantly, use carbon offsets in order to be completely carbon neutral. I want a large carbon tax, albeit one that is revenue neutral. This blogpost shouldn't be interpreted in any way as "denying climate change".

Instead, the point is about "Truth". I see the facile corruption of "Truth" in my own industry. It's incredibly Orwellian. I'm disappointed how those like Neil deGrasse Tyson haven't learned the lessons of history and 1984 about "Truth".


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Greg Nation said...

> This matches the Republican ideology: they have no particular dispute with climate change as such, they just oppose expansion of government.

I don't want to get into a political spat, but the above statement is a good example of "Truth".

Most Republican politicians are more than happy to expand government even though they say otherwise. Think PATRIOT Act, middle-east wars, the desire to ban same-sex marriage by law (i.e., the government should regulate who people are allowed to love), CBP, ICE, travel bans, war on encryption, war on drugs, etc. Democrat politicians are just more up-front about wanting to expand regulation.

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