09 October 2013

It’s a binary, binary, binary world! Climate, Scotland and the US Shutdown

I’m an economist.  I’m comfortable with reductionist approaches if they can give some power to an analysis without doing too much violence to reality.  But even I am aghast at the three “binarys” that are hogging the Western news media.

First, there is climate change. There is a nice article by Mehdi Hasan (who usually does not move me) on why we should not use the term "climate sceptics".  

Scepticism, he argues, is the meat and drink of science—it is a good thing, it pushes scientists to test hypotheses and show their workings and allow others to review them and try to repeat the outcomes.  Not this label for the vast majority of folks who do not believe the science--they are  "climate deniers" and conspiracy theorists. They deny that the climate is changing and that human activity is playing a key role. They believe that so many people are aligned with the consensus position because these people have too much to lose to risk disagreeing. 

I can’t really understand this argument as climate scientists will never be out of work—the climate is too changeable and the risks of policy getting it wrong are too big. I suppose the climate change lobby groups would lose out if things went off the boil (no pun intended) and the renewable energy folks would too.  But the 34 National Academies of Sciences that have signed up the latest IPCC report have no such incentives, and yet the deniers suggest they have been “gotten at”.  How, we can only imagine. Anyway why are Western Governments signing up to an IPCC consensus that is, presumably, a real pain to have to deal with (can’t we just keep burning fossil fuel?)?  Surely the renewable energy lobby is not mightier than Big Energy?  Binary--either you a denier or you are a consensus adopter--not much space in the middle. 

Second, there is the referendum in less than a year’s time, when Scottish residents will be able to vote on whether or not they want to remain part of the UK. Scottish author Denise Mina, writing in the International Herald Tribune notes that she was to appear on a radio programme to discuss the referendum with a panel member who was pro and one who was con.  The pro and the con had a “brutal falling out” before they even got to the studio—within the group email chain giving panellists directions to the studio.  No one knows the answers to some key questions you would think would inform the decision: will Scotland have to leave the EU?  If it does how will it be affected?  Will Scotland become a low tax haven like Ireland or will it follow an Iceland low financial regulation model (because those two turned out so well..)?  How much better or worse off will the average Scottish voter be as a result of independence? No matter.  The battle lines are drawn and few people are thought to be likely to cross them in the coming months. Binary.

Third, there is the US Government shutdown. Here, as President Obama artfully put it, one faction (Tea party) of one Party (Republican) of one part (House of Representatives) of one branch of the US government (Congress) is holding the global economy hostage over a law that was passed 3 years ago and that Obama won re-election on.  Talk about bad losers. Both sides have made up their minds.  The Democrats are quite reasonably saying that if they give in then any group of 30 congressmen can threaten to blow up the US economy to revisit a piece of legislation they do not like.  The Republican congressmen are in hardline districts, where their biggest worry is being ousted at the next election by someone even more hardline than they are. Binary.   

Of course these debates are less binary than they seem.  No one knows what will happen to climate, an independent Scotland, and a US economy that fails to raise its debt ceiling because of the current impasse.  My takeaway is that in the face of all this uncertainty, many of us go with our gut, and that means drawing conclusions that best fit with our simple self image: eco-warrior or rugged maverick, Scottish patriot or defender of the Union, government as part of the solution or government as part of the problem. 

All we can do as researchers is to try and keep our own biases and preferences in check, keep generating evidence and keep trying to present it in accessible and yet nuanced ways.  And avoiding falling into the binary trap.


Joern Geisselmann said...

Two thumbs up for this blog entry!I could not agree more on the need to be aware and avoid "binarys". They often block the way for creative and inclusive solutions.

Anonymous said...

I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure!