Forum – Winter 2018
What drives innovation?
In “What Does Innovation Today Tell Us about the US Economy Tomorrow?” (Issues, Fall 2017), Jeffrey Funk starts with an assertion that puzzles me, but after that he develops and provides evidence for a point of view that is quite consistent with my knowledge. He asserts early on that most scholars of innovation see new scientific knowledge as generally providing the focus and capability for successful efforts to develop new products and processes—what is often called the linear model. However, though many years ago the linear model was widely believed in the innovation research community, it has been almost completely abandoned over the past quarter century, a bit too sweepingly in my view since it is not a bad first approximation to much of what is going on in a few fields, particularly biomedicine.
But after that assertion, Funk makes it clear that he does not hold to that theory, and he spends most of his article providing evidence that knocks it down. His report on the referencing to science in patents taken out by a collection of successful start-ups is a useful contribution to a wide range of empirical evidence we now have that in most industries and technologies, invention generally does not rely on new science. And Funk’s data, as that in other studies, show biotech as something of an exception.
Funk argues that in most fields of technology what he calls the Silicon Valley model fits what is going on in innovation much better than the linear model, and I think most scholars of innovation would agree. In these fields, most particular innovations are incremental, but the effort is cumulative and progress can be very rapid. Funk makes a point that progress at any stage often is driven by recent advances in component technologies and materials, again an argument that is consistent with a number of other empirical studies. He gives us some very nice examples.
Toward the close of his article Funk comes out agreeing with Robert Gordon and Tyler Cohen that in recent years rapid technological advance has been occurring in only a few sectors, those drawing on biotech and those involved in information processing being the most important ones. He takes the position that an important route toward broadening the innovation that is going on is to take steps to make research done at universities more focused on explicitly creating the bases for technological advance in areas where the need is great. For reasons that he surely knows but does not go into, this is a very controversial argument. But he will have many people who strongly agree with him.
Jeffrey Funk’s essay contains informative vignettes about the contributions of science to technological innovation in selected industries and about technological innovations in other industries that are formed instead by what the economist W. Brian Arthur has called “fresh combinations of what already exists” and are essentially independent of scientific advances. Other than perhaps eliding the case of technological advances serving as essential building blocks to scientific advance, these vignettes add to but largely restate well-known propositions in studies of causal linkages between scientific discoveries and technological innovation.
The essay’s efforts to relate its vignettes to national science and technology policy issues are hampered, however, by an overdone reliance on a stylized dichotomy between a linear, science-based, model and technology-built (Silicon Valley) models of innovation. Its presentation and interpretation of data on the percentage of patents citing scientific and engineering publications to “identify the parts of the US innovation system that are working well and those that are not” also are unconvincing.
The crux of the argument is that the frequency of citations of publications in patents is a measure of the importance of the science-based model. Thus, as Funk reported in Table 1, low percentages to the Billion Dollar Startup Club are presented as indicating little contribution of science to economic growth. Note needs to be made here of the difference between this finding and that of Francis Narin and colleagues, who in 1997 used patent citations to publications in highly regarded journals to demonstrate that “public science plays an essential role in supporting U.S. industry, across all the science-linked areas of industry, amongst companies large and small, and is a fundamental pillar of the advance of U.S. technology.” Relationships clearly may have changed over the past 20 years. But the more likely explanation for the difference is Funk’s limited and uncritical use of data. The data in Table 1 are largely consistent with a priori expectations about which industries would rely on patents for protection of intellectual property and which would not (biotechnology and e-commerce, respectively), and relatedly on knowledge embedded in scientific papers. In Funk’s interpretation, no allowance is made for differences in an industry’s reliance on patents that are, say, relative to trade secrets to establish intellectual property rights or to the relative importance of different patents within a firm’s patent portfolio.
The issue of the relative mix of mission-oriented and science-oriented investments addressed by the essay is of longstanding importance. In 1987, likely the nadir of US international competitiveness in traditional manufacturing sectors and the peak of concern about declining leadership in scientific and technological endeavors, the economist Henry Ergas introduced the distinction between mission-oriented and diffusion-oriented national research strategies. He described the former as “big science deployed to meet big problems” and the latter as “policies that seek to provide a broadly based capacity for adjusting to technological change throughout the industrial structure.”
Much of US science and technology policy from the early 1980s on, encompassing the Bayh-Dole Act, the Stevenson-Wydler Act, the National Cooperative Research and Production Act, and the Small Business Innovation Development Act, as well as agency-specific initiatives such as the National Science Foundation’s funding of Engineering Research Centers, may be seen as experiments designed to foster a more mission-oriented cast to federal investments in research and development (R&D). Some of these policy initiatives have worked well, others less so.
Against the backdrop of projected near-term austerity in real levels of federal R&D funding, it is not clear what Funk has in mind when he contends that “US policy makers should be moving more of the nation’s R&D investment toward a mission-based approach, and they should be experimenting with different approaches to implementation.” What type of investment/performer/societal objective (other than economic growth) funding mechanism will bear the opportunity costs of reduced funding? Without providing specific answers to these questions, depending on one’s choice of metaphors, moving in the direction of his recommendation is either opening a black box or a Pandora’s box.
Jeffrey Funk draws attention to two perspectives on innovation and offers a potential remedy for improving the current innovation approach. The first perspective distinguishes between the optimists’ and pessimists’ views of the economic impact of the current state of innovation in the United States. The second distinguishes between science-based (science-focused) and Silicon Valley-based (mission-focused) innovation. Funk postulates that Silicon Valley innovation is not as dependent on basic or applied science, and that it commercializes faster but penetrates smaller sections of the economy. He proposes speeding science-based innovation and focusing on critical areas for its application—merging academic research with mission-based goals for society. Before addressing this solution, I want to consider the issues with Funk’s assessment of the situation.
Funk’s observations and examples reveal the difficulty of defining, measuring, and tracking innovation, major problems in evaluating innovation’s effectiveness, economic penetration, and upstream and downstream effects. Researchers such as Funk lack time series data (data points indexed in time order) or other relevant data, relying instead on a series of individual surveys, personal anecdotes, and inconsistent methodologies. The assumptions made about data quality and compatibility result in measurement and forecasts that fail to provide policy-makers with the appropriate information to make critical decisions.
Better insights can be achieved with indicators that more comprehensively measure the multiple facets of innovation. Changing the measure of the nation’s gross domestic product to include R&D, computer software and databases, entertainment, and literary and artistic originals as investments rather than expenses, as proposed by the economist Marissa J. Crawford in 2014, would be a step in the right direction. Since companies expect their current spending in these investments to generate future returns and investors consider them in assessing the firm’s market value (versus book value), the investments are indicative of the value of the economy. Broadening the definition of innovation to include investments in design, branding, new financial products, organizational capital, and firm-provided training and other intangibles would provide a more challenging but improved measurement.
Broadening the definition of innovation beyond commercialization would include many additional activities and outputs. For example, currently unmeasured is what the economist Eric von Hippel has called “free innovation,” where innovators have a specific and often personal need to create new products or processes and to make them available to all. Free innovation takes many forms, from medical devices to sports equipment to open source software. A comprehensive measure of innovation would include these free innovations.
These new measures can take advantage of new ways to collect data, such as opportunity data from crowdsourcing and the internet. These new sources of data would supplement the current survey and national accounts measures and provide new insights into current measures.
Funk’s solution to improving the economic impact of innovation is also problematic. If as he proposes innovation must be made more mission-focused, who will decide the missions, the critical areas for supporting research, and the mission-based goals? How will the decisions be made? And what happens to funding for pure basic research? Although tools can be created without basic science research—even cave dwellers and crows have done it—basic science is the feedstock for improving those tools. How does society prevent this mission approach from removing the feedstock for future improvement?
As Funk suggests, there is a need for an improved link between innovation and its economic impact. Better measurement tools and approaches are needed to assess the total economic impact of innovation before a more mission-focused strategy can arguably improve economic impact.
I largely agree with Jeffrey Funk’s analysis and his prescriptions for improving the yield of academic research projects. He makes a strong separation between science-based innovation and the Silicon Valley process of technology change. And he is correctly critical of the linear model. But I think he would do well to celebrate the positive role that technology-driven innovation plays in providing new challenges that advance science. For example, the invention of the transistor came from technology-driven needs to replace vacuum tubes, later leading to the discovery of the transistor effect, which earned the inventors a Nobel Prize in Physics. There are many such examples, but linear model advocates often rewrite history to favor their misguided model.
I like Funk’s analyses of the MIT Technology Review predictions and his claims that large economic impacts are more likely to come from technology-based innovations. I agree with his recommendations that tying scientific research more closely to national priorities and mission-driven projects would be helpful and that a slightly more centralized approach would be beneficial, as is emerging with the Engineering Research Centers sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the Manufacturing.gov partnerships. Of course, there should always be room for blue-sky explorations and theory-driven science.
One concern is that Funk appears to believe that change can come only through top-down government policy shifts, but bottom-up changes can happen from individual researchers, laboratory directors, and campus leaders who recognize the paths to high-impact research by working more closely with business, government, and nongovernmental organization partners. There is evidence that both paths to change are happening, so more articles such as this are helpful to accelerate these changes that will lead to better research that has higher societal impact.
As John Paul Helveston says in “Navigating an Uncertain Future for US Roads” (Issues, Fall 2017), highway finance in the United States is “broken and broke.” It is ill suited to dealing with the three emerging revolutions in passenger transportation—electrification, automation, and shared mobility. Although the current method of taxing gasoline (and diesel) is becoming increasingly anachronistic, it remains a very simple and highly efficient method for collecting revenue: less than 1% of the money taken in is spent on collection and administration.
Helveston’s preferred alternative, a tax on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), has many attractions. It relies on in-vehicle transponders and GPS to monitor congestion and location, and it can be fine-tuned to address equity, congestion management, and environmental goals. However, the adoption of VMT taxes will likely face political headwinds at least as strong as increased gas taxes will. In addition, it is much more expensive to administer, consuming over 6% of the revenue (equivalent to about $300 million per year at today’s tax rates).
As academics, we endorse Helveston’s enthusiasm for a VMT tax. But if all of the equity, congestion, and environmental benefits of VMT taxes are to be realized, their adoption would have to be done largely by local and state governments. The national government will not and should not determine how to tax single-occupant versus pooled vehicles (such as Lyft Line and Uberpool), roadway tolls, and the use of automated cars, to name just a few road taxation options. VMT taxes will and should be largely a local prerogative and action. Moreover, there are various other approaches that could face weaker political headwinds and be well suited to the task of financing roads and steering the three transportation revolutions to the public interest.
Perhaps the simplest option is to modify the gas tax to be an energy tax. The tax would be administered not just at the gas pump but, in the case of electricity, by the electric utility. This “energy equivalent” tax would impose a fee based on energy content and can take into account vehicle efficiency. The tax could be easily adjusted to meet local infrastructure needs. And it would be cheap to administer. It solves the challenges posed by the electric vehicle revolution.
Other less sophisticated approaches can address the challenges of congestion management and incentivize the use of pooled and automated vehicles (and disincentivize individually owned unshared automated cars). These include providing increased access to high-occupancy toll lanes, designating preferential parking for pooled cars (with higher rates for single-occupant vehicles), or even banning low-occupancy vehicles in certain areas. All of these approaches could be adjusted to ease the burden on disadvantaged travelers.
VMT fees are an elegant solution to the broken, anachronistic gas tax of today, and deserve support. But we should not let the good get in the way of the perfect. Let us continue to be creative and sensitive to local priorities. Let us encourage many flowers to bloom.
Before considering the thesis of John Paul Helveston’s article, it’s useful to review some physics. Moving an object requires energy for overcoming inertia and friction. The amount of energy equals the quantity of work done, conditional on the efficiency of energy conversion. Transportation is work, and the energy used is proportional to the work done. Taxing energy means that bigger, heavier vehicles pay more than smaller, lighter vehicles, something a VMT tax doesn’t do until a system to discriminate among vehicles is added. It’s physics that makes fuel taxes, as Helveston notes, “nearly impossible to avoid and easy to collect.” And taxing energy creates an economic incentive to improve energy efficiency.
The problem with taxing vehicle energy use is political, not practical. The motor fuel taxation system is in trouble, but it’s been in the same predicament several times before and been repaired. Historically, the threats to motor fuel taxes have been (in order of importance) inflation, fuel economy, and, a distant third, alternative fuels. Motor fuel taxes are excise taxes, so inflation erodes their value, which would equally be a problem for a VMT tax. The solution is conceptually simple (index to inflation) but politically difficult. To address increasing fuel economy, an energy tax can also be indexed to the average energy efficiency of all vehicles on the road (also simple but politically challenging). And today, every alternative fuel is taxed except electricity.
To mitigate climate change, we must urgently improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, making this the wrong time to abolish a tax on transportation energy use. In 2016, transportation became the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the US economy. Today, fossil petroleum still supplies 92% of transportation’s energy, with most of the rest coming from corn-based ethanol, whose greenhouse gas emissions are, arguably, not a lot better. Because of this, vehicle energy taxes are effectively a tax on carbon emissions and thus a meaningful incentive to improve energy efficiency. VMT taxes could be structured to mimic these environmental benefits, but then tax rates would also need to be periodically adjusted to offset increased fuel economy.
Taxing VMT is better for addressing congestion and vehicles’ cost responsibility. Congestion pricing must be time- and place-specific, and will almost certainly be regressive. Although energy use increases linearly with mass, damage to pavements and bridges increases exponentially. Taxing heavy-duty vehicles’ VMT could work much better than the current system of ad hoc taxes. Why not add targeted VMT taxes to a universal vehicle energy use tax?
As Helveston notes, plug-in electric vehicles comprise less than 1% of new vehicle sales and an even smaller fraction of vehicles on the road. By 2025 electricity is likely to comprise no more than a few percent of vehicle energy use. In the meantime, we can tax electric vehicles. In the future, smart grids could tax their energy use. But we shouldn’t be in a hurry to abolish a useful tax on energy.
In “Character and Religion in Climate Engineering” (Issues, Fall 2017), Forrest Clingerman, Kevin O’Brien, and Thomas Ackermann provide a neglected, interesting, and potentially valuable perspective on how to deal with high-stakes technology and policy choices related to climate engineering. Their approach is particularly bracing as a counterweight to the widespread but often overlooked presumption of interest-based rationalism that underlies many discussions of public policy, climate engineering, and other matters.
Their argument targets one of the central problems of climate engineering. Any decisions about climate engineering interventions (including refusal to authorize them) would have global consequences, but would also involve unavoidable delegation of authority to some kind of international body, whether political or technical or some blend of the two. Delegation requires some degree of trust. But in global decisions, in which participating values are widely diverse and mechanisms for democratic accountability are at best imperfect, what could provide the basis for establishing such trust? The authors’ answer is to abstract a few fundamental character traits, or virtues, that are consistently articulated across the world’s major religious traditions—accountability, humility, and justice—and propose that decisions should manifest these virtues.
As a short list of virtues you would want incorporated in policy decisions, this is a good one, although I would suggest one change. Justice is an odd fit with the other two, because it is more a property of collective political outcomes than of individual character, and because many proposed ways to operationalize it would appear to miss the authors’ target. For example, views of justice that stress procedural fairness seem irrelevant to their aim, while views that highlight expansive protection of property rights might act against their aim. I would propose replacing justice with compassion, particularly in its concern for the suffering of the worst off and most vulnerable populations. Like the authors’ proposed guiding virtues, it is near-universal across religious traditions, and it might more squarely target their concern.
But this is a small objection, almost a quibble. I see three more serious challenges to deriving useful guidance from the authors’ proposed virtues.
First, there has not been a close correspondence between individual character and political decisions since the decline of absolute sovereigns. Contemporary policy decisions are made not by individuals, but by complex bureaucratic and political networks. In such systems, the challenges to making the identified virtues operational, or even influential, are substantial. Indeed, it often appears that political institutions are more effective at aggregating and empowering vice (such as greed, lust for power, delusion) than virtue, even when their ostensible guiding principles are virtues. Multiple examples attest that even explicitly religious institutions, principles, and commitments are not exempt from this generalization when they move, or are moved, into the sphere of temporal or political action. Consider religious justifications of extremist violence, the Catholic hierarchy’s decades-long evasions over sexual abuse of children, or the entrainment of much of contemporary American evangelical Protestantism into the political agenda of the Republican Party. My aim here it not to take cheap shots against religions or religious organizations, nor to reject the authors’ aspiration, but merely to note the acute, unresolved challenges to realizing their aims in the context of high-stakes political action.
Second, the implications of the authors’ proposed virtues for action are frustratingly vague. When any action has diffuse, far-reaching potential consequences, exhorting decision-makers to take account of consequences is surely better advice than the contrary. But this exhortation provides no guidance on what consequences to consider, how many steps removed from the initial action, mediated by what processes (including other people’s decisions), or how to think about them. Similarly, exhortations to humility are clearly proper, if the alternative is rigid confidence in a single view of technical capabilities and consequences. But when any action—or for that matter inaction—leads to multiple linked uncertainties, it is unclear what additional guidance humility provides. Perhaps it overlaps with prudence or precaution, but then what additional guidance does it give? And if the additional guidance is for extreme precaution when dealing with novel acts such as climate engineering, then humility, like accountability, risks becoming a comprehensive prescription for inaction, thus further entrenching the status quo and its associated risks—in this case, continued climate change and impacts, limited only by whatever reductions can be achieved by mitigation.
Finally, the authors propose to apply their character-based framework to climate engineering—and in particular to climate engineering research—but do not say why these activities, rather than other technologies, policy decisions, or research areas, should be subject to such heightened scrutiny. For potential future operational decisions about climate engineering, heightened scrutiny clearly makes sense. Given their global impacts and high stakes, we would surely hope these decisions are made with accountability, humility, and consideration for the most vulnerable. But this seems even more evident for other areas of current research and technology development, such as synthetic biology and artificial intelligence, that are racing ahead with little such scrutiny. Saying “What about these other technologies” does not, of course, rebut the case for subjecting climate engineering to such scrutiny. But it does raise questions about the limited application of such a character-based perspective, and the oddity of advocating such application for a set of potential technologies not yet in development, indeed scarcely researched, yet already subject to exhaustive, hostile scrutiny.
The application of this heightened scrutiny to research is particularly strange. Although concerns have been raised that research on climate engineering will inevitably lead down a slippery slope to thoughtless deployment whether justified or not, the basis for such claims is weak. Yet the authors appear to presume this will happen, by holding research to account for all harms that might follow from deployment. The link from research to deployment cannot be completely dismissed, but there is little basis for judging it a serious risk. History is littered with technologies researched and developed but not deployed. Moreover, strong restrictions on or aggressive scrutiny of research may act against the authors’ aims for accountability and humility. Because expanded research is needed to advance understanding of potential consequences and risks, strong restrictions on research—particularly if proponents of the research are required to surmount a burden of showing no harm can come from it—would hinder the attempt to gain knowledge about consequences and risks that is necessary to support an informed stance of accountability or humility, except insofar as these are construed as implying categorical rejection of climate engineering deployment or research, under all conditions. I suspect this is not what the authors intended.
Forrest Clingerman, Kevin J. O’Brien, and Thomas P. Ackermann make a cogent case for the inclusion of religious thought—particularly character ethics—in discussions of solar radiation management and carbon capture and storage. They advocate responsibility, humility, and justice as character traits that may be supported by religious thought and applicable to those making decisions about climate engineering. Though this is unobjectionable, it also misses the mark regarding the most dynamic and useful insights that religions bring to the conversation.
Climate engineering is ontologically disorienting because it clearly places human agency into a position of power over a global entity—the climate—that has never before been deliberately manipulated at this scale. Before the policy community or the public at large is ready to discuss whether climate engineers are sufficiently virtuous, we must determine what our new and rather frightening abilities mean about who we are and where we’re going as a species. We need to reckon with the philosophically shallow but emotionally provocative concern that humans may be “playing God.” Until we can truly accept the implications of the fact that humans are responsible for accidental climate change, we will not be ready to ethically evaluate the proposal to deliberately change the climate.
Religious thought has many relevant insights: Shall we reenvision the role of the human in creation? Are we dominators, stewards, caretakers, partners, priests, kin? Ought we repent of complicity in climate change, ask forgiveness, seek reconciliation? Are humans alone in these decisions, or might we seek wisdom from ancient traditions, a transcendent and wise deity, or even (acknowledging that not all humans have equally caused these problems) from those most affected by climate change? These ontological questions precede and underlie questions of ethics and character. (And several contributions to Clingerman and O’Brien’s recent book, Theological and Ethical Perspectives on Climate Engineering, touch on them.)
The authors correctly insist that scientific proposals for climate engineering should also include moral and social considerations. Some scientists may find this requirement cumbersome. But the philosopher Bernard Rollin, in Science and Ethics, recognizes that if scientists wish to maintain professional autonomy, “they must be closely attuned in an anticipatory way to changes and tendencies in social ethics and adjust their behavior to them, else they can be shackled by unnecessarily draconian restriction.”
Rollin astutely observes that “any major new technology will create a lacuna in social and ethical thought in direct proportion to its novelty.” He worries that this lacuna, if not filled well, will lead to “bad ethics.” For example, he notes that within one week of the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, a poll indicated that 75% of the US public believed that cloning the sheep had “violated” God’s will. If would-be climate engineers wish to avoid a backlash comparable to that against genetic modification of organisms, they would do well to take Clingerman, O’Brien, and Ackermann’s advice by proactively engaging ethics and religion sooner rather than later.
Forrest Clingerman, Kevin O’Brien, and Thomas Ackermann discuss three important character attributes that humanity will need to manage the climate of the Earth: responsibility, humility, and justice. I think the first two will be more important than the last. It’s easy to forget that we are not talking about geoengineering to steer away from our current climate. We are talking about geoengineering when things become really bad and most of the world, if not the entire world, is suffering badly. Responsible action will mean making things better for nearly everyone while at the same time never giving into the hubris that we can have total control. Justice is important, but any responsible action should mean that we are quite certain the intervention will help pretty much everyone.
Being responsible, humble, and just may be its own reward, but motivating publics will likely require more than admonitions. This deeply pessimistic time for many who study the climate problem means these scientists fear that the awful truth—as they understand it—would cause people to just give up. We must also think about attracting people to a future world and giving them reason to be, if not optimistic, at least willfully hopeful about the future. Geoengineering holds some promise for developing hope. Geoengineers need hopefulness.
To act with intention as a geoengineer implies designing interventions to achieve specific outcomes. Definition of goals will surely include the notion that everyone should have enough to eat, sufficient water and shelter, clean air to breathe, and so on. Some parts of the Earth should be dedicated to animals or perhaps re-wilded. Hope may grow as people, or at least groups of people, come together over these goals. Exploration of geoengineering presents the opportunity to learn about effective management of the environment of the planet and to take pleasure in doing a good job in that process.
But people will also likely want or need a simpler clarifying way to think about what humanity is trying to achieve on our home planet, and to some extent this may simply involve beauty. Finding beauty in aspects of the world that humans have engineered will likely require a lot more common knowledge and working appreciation about how the world of the Anthropogene (the time during which human activity has significantly altered the natural environment) works. If you don’t understand how the world works, how can you understand and appreciate what an intervention does? I would guess that most Americans no longer know as much about where their water and food come from as they did in the past. To many, water comes from the tap, food from the store. The ebb and flow of seasons and what to expect as they change don’t really show up on television or smartphones. As part of the challenge, geoengineers will also have to become communicators and explainers of the wonders of this world and the pleasures and aesthetics of stewardship. And they will have to know an awful lot.
Forrest Clingerman, Kevin O’Brien, and Thomas Ackerman call for dialogue between geoengineering researchers and religion (or religion scholars). Religions provide numerous resources for ethical deliberation. They offer distinct vocabularies, concepts, and narratives for framing problems and evaluating possible solutions. As Clingerman and coauthors point out, reflection on geoengineering ought to engage us in discussions of the moral character of researchers. Desirable character traits include justice, responsibility, and humility. As a rule of thumb, no one who aspires to assume the role of God by controlling the world’s climate should be trusted with the technologies to do so.
Some researchers, I imagine, might scoff at alarmist warnings about playing God. Do scientists genuinely harbor divine aspirations, or is this merely the stuff of cinematic depictions of mad scientists and sensationalized news headlines?
In my view, the article’s authors are quite right to stress issues of character, particularly in an epoch that, formally or otherwise, we are naming after ourselves. As they argue, everyone stands to benefit from better acquaintance with religious worldviews and their distinctive moral contributions. But we must also understand that religion—broadly construed—has already framed these and other debates about technology. It is not simply a matter of inserting religion into a conversation where it is absent, in other words. Religious myths, motifs, vocabularies, and aspirations have long taken up residence in our discourse about science and technology. Recognizing this, scientists and others might learn to use religion’s resources responsibly, to reflect more deeply on the marriage of religion and technology that already exists.
Geoengineering strategies present a moral hazard: technological adaptation to climate change may perpetuate avoidance of responsibility rather than force us to address underlying causes—character flaws—that created the crisis. If we can remake the world to suit ourselves and our preferred mode of existence, we can persist in the denial of human and natural limits. Depending on how we deploy them, mythic and religious vocabularies can encourage or critique avoidance of responsibility. They can foster aggrandizement of ourselves as creators, or they can serve as humble reminders of our creaturely status.
Appropriation of religious language in a techno-scientific milieu is rampant—particularly when stakes are high or the achievements unprecedented. We see such appropriation among would-be geoengineers insisting that “we are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” We find it among champions of de-extinction who christen their work “The Lazarus Project.” Atomic scientists of the past century who likened themselves to Hindu deities, or spoke of scientists “knowing sin” for the first time, were telling us something. When engineers dream of interstellar travel and attach mythic names to their visions—”Star Ark” or “Icarus”—we should pay attention.
The first astronauts to land on the moon read aloud from the Genesis stories of creation. Were they praising God’s creation? Perhaps, inspired by their God’s-eye view, they were affirming the extension of humans’ God-given dominion well beyond Earth. Who can say?
Religion scholars can say. Or at least, they can provide intelligent analysis. We need more dialogue between the research community and religion. And we also need to understand what is already being communicated and why.
Religion and science
I read with interest the essays and personal views discussing the various possible relations one can imagine between science and religion. I learned a lot about the personal life of Jamie Zvirzdin and how she was educated among the Mormons while being fascinated by astronomy and the sciences in general. Kristin Johnson’s thoughts on how the personal beliefs of scientists are affected by the death of their sons and daughters are also of interest and confirm what is already well known: that individual scientists can always find ways to make knowledge and their religious beliefs compatible. And Dinty Moore’s conversations with “real” Americans provide enlightenment about how they perceive the “supposed” divide between science and religion.
As someone who tries to elevate the level of discourse on this recurrent debate about the relations between science and religion, I am struck by the fact that the main reason it has been a dialogue of the deaf for the past quarter of century is that very few of the protagonists take the time to define the terms “science” and “religion.” For before debating whether “science and religion go hand in hand,” as young Isaac Mills assured Moore, or asking “why can’t the two views simply coexist,” it should stand to reason that the persons who partake in the discussion should first make sure that they are talking about well-defined categories and that they put the same things under those names.
It is thus unfortunate to observe again that none of the contributions take the time to tell us what they mean by science and by religion. In case some readers think it is obvious and need no such pedantic talk about definition, I will simply recall that there are certainly differences between religion, faith, and spirituality, for example. Hence, Moore tells us that he explores the idea that “faith and rationality can coexist.” If we know that faith can obviously be argued rationally on the basis of some postulate, one can only agree with such a statement. But is rationality synonymous with science? Of course not, and the fact that one can find good reasons to believe in some invisible gods—for that could indeed explain bizarre things such as evil or our very existence—does not mean that it has anything to do with science.
In fact, the first thing to do to get rid of the confused language that dominates this ill-defined debate is to clearly distinguish between the individual and the social-institutional levels. Hence a “religion” refers to a social organization that promotes a set of principles, beliefs, and rules of behavior defined either by a sacred book or an oral tradition said to have its origins in a particular god. Beliefs and spirituality do not have to be linked to a formal religion and can be very idiosyncratic. Thus the members of the Mills family presented by Moore are said to be “devout evangelical Christians.” They are thus part of an official religion and, as such, follow the rules it defined in order to remain part of that community. Now, science is also a social institution that constitutes a community on the basis of a collective practice that methodically searches to explain the world (material, living, social, and so on) in terms of natural causes. Science is thus a sort of game with its own rules based on observation, experimentation, calculation, and rational argumentation. By its very definition it excludes supernatural explanation, since such an explanation is always possible and thus explains nothing.
Once we clearly define religions and science as different social institutions, it becomes clear that particular individuals can believe whatever they want as long as they obey the rules of the scientific game and do not invoke “miracle” or “god’s action” to explain a given phenomena. Said differently: science is collective and social, whereas religious beliefs are private and personal. Science and beliefs are thus on different planes. Conflict will occur only when a given religion, as a social organization, wants to limit the freedom of scientific research or to object—without using the same scientific method—that this or that scientific fact cannot be so. It is the social force of institutionalized religions that explains the many well-known historical conflicts that have emerged since the seventeenth century and led to various exclusions of scientists from religious communities and to the condemnation of many books by the Catholic Church. Now that such institutions have lost their temporal (as opposed to spiritual) power, conflicts appear at more local levels when social groups want to impose their views on the larger communities, as witnessed in the debates going on in some US schools about the teaching of evolution in science courses.
Since the Templeton Foundation provides the money to the project “Think Write Publish: Science and Religion,” it is to be hoped that the various essays that come out of this enterprise will go beyond the actual confusion of language, which can serve nobody except if one really thinks that confusion can serve the interest of religions. Being that most religious people hold their belief on sincere faith, no religious believers should be afraid of the most robust results established by the scientific community using its sophisticated method of naturalistic explanations. As Brother Marie-Victorin, a member of Brothers of the Christian Schools and a noted botanist in Quebec, wrote in 1926, “science and religion follow parallel paths, toward their own goals,” a position that also echoes Cardinal John Henry Newman who said in 1855 that “theology and Science, whether in their respective ideas, or again in their own actual fields, on the whole, are incommunicable, incapable of collision, and needing, at most to be connected, never to be reconciled.” And if one absolutely wants to “harmonize” a given religion with the actual state of science, then it is only necessary to adapt the principles and beliefs of the former to make it compatible with the latter, for science as a social institution cannot be constrained in its freedom by any of the many existing religions. Finally, one should at some point ask this important but neglected question: why do some religions want to “dialogue” with science if the former are about the supernatural world, while the latter is about the natural world?
In a response to my article “The Science Police” (Issues, Summer 2017), Stephan Lewandowsky, James Risbey, and Naomi Oreskes write: “Keith Kloor alleges that self-appointed sheriffs in the scientific community are censoring or preventing research showing that the risks from climate change are low or manageable.”
That is a complete mischaracterization. My article discussed how political considerations have influenced two high-profile disciplines: conservation biology and climate science. I delved into the experiences of well-regarded researchers who have been affected by unusual efforts to “police” their work and of those who pushed back on such efforts. I did not discuss any scientific research that even hinted—nor did I imply—that “the risks from climate change are low or manageable,” as Lewandowsky et al. suggest in their framing of my article.
As I wrote, Lewandowsky and colleagues published several papers that seemed intended “to foreclose certain lines of scientific inquiry,” such as the study of natural variability. The letter writers assert that this is a “fabricated claim” by me. I can rebut this by simply pointing to the reaction of highly respected climate scientists in 2015, after a related paper published by Lewandowsky et al. appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change. I did not “fabricate” how climate scientists reacted to this paper; I reported on it.
For example, coverage of the Lewandowsky paper by the British newspaper the Guardian included one article headlined “Are climate scientists cowed by sceptics?” Peter Thorne, a professor of physical geography (climate science) at Maynooth University in Ireland, left this comment at the Guardian: “To maintain that we as scientists should not investigate the pause/hiatus/slowdown [there, I used the phrase…] is downright disingenuous and dangerous.” And Richard Betts, a climate scientist and head of the climate impacts strategic area at the United Kingdom’s Met Office, left a similar comment and also wrote an extensive rebuttal to Lewandowsky et al., which I referenced in my article.
In short, my article correctly captured how numerous climate scientists felt after some climate communication scholars suggested that recent research on natural variability was prompted by climate contrarians, when in fact it was a continuation of a long line of inquiry.