The Politics of Simulation

I’ve been quiet for a few weeks now because I’ve been diligently studying for my second area exam.  This one will be about the research that has been done within the social sciences on environmental modeling.  Most of this research has focused on the General Circulation Models (GCMs) that are used to understand and predict the effects of anthropogenic climate change, however, there are those who deal with water quality modeling and flood modeling.  What I’ve found interesting in these accounts is the extent to which – at times unacknowledged by the researchers themselves – politics plays a formative role in the development and distribution of computer simulations.

As an example, I’ll take Matthias Heymann’s essay “Constructing Evidence and Trust” in the volume The Social Life of Climate Change Models (edited by Kirsten Hastrup and Martin Skrydstrup) which looks at the different ways that models gain confidence within the scientific community (the author purposefully brackets off scientific confidence from public confidence in order to avoid confusion).  In the article, Heymann identifies four sources – I would almost say orders – of confidence. The first order of confidence comes from the emergent features that are produced in the simulation runs.  That these emergent features resemble patterns one would expect to see in the actual climate (but were not part of the initial programming – thus “emergent”), provides a degree of confidence that the models are capturing the basic physical laws that govern the climate.  The second order of confidence comes from the quantitative fit between simulation results and observed data.  That these models can successfully back-forecast and produce reasonably similar results offers a further confidence in their capabilities.  The third order of confidence results from the similarity of behavior between different models.  Because the models tend to agree despite differences in parameters and code suggests that the models are effectively modeling the same general phenomena.  Finally, Heymann argues that the fourth source of confidence comes from a rhetorical strategy that makes the uncertainties in simulation results invisible.  There is no quantitative method for measuring the uncertainty of these models – this would take multiple model runs which consumes a lot of time and resources.  At the same time, model results are depicted with graphs and the weight of statistical certainty.  Although the uncertainty of the models is always mentioned, it cannot compete with the weight of graphic depictions provided by the simulation runs.


This last order of certainty is the only point in Heymann’s four sources where politics seems to enter.  There are clear political reasons (in excess of the practical reasons) why scientists might downplay the uncertainty of their models. One reason is that modelers are competing for funding, and they have a vested interest in portraying their models in the best possible light.  Another reason is that there is a general sense in the scientific community (and I have seen this firsthand in my own encounters with modelers) that any sign of uncertainty will become fodder for climate skeptics and deniers or the media to attack.  A third reason, not mentioned by Heymann, but discussed at length in another article by Lahsen called “Seductive Simulations” is that modelers themselves may be psychologically attached to and overly confident in the reality of their models.

Clearly, politics comes in at the tail end of the modeling performance. Once the models have been run, and all of the other sources of confidence have been achieved, it is the presentation of models that takes on a political aspect.  However, Heymann points to another point where politics enters the equation from the very beginning.  In fact, although he doesn’t recognize it as such, politics could be said to be the real first order source of confidence in modeling.  Heymann describes the history of climate modeling in two phases.  The first phase is the development of basic climate models starting in the 1950s and going into the early 1970s.  This era is characterized by a general lack of confidence in modeling, and frequent warnings in scientific papers about the inadequacy of the model results.  The second phase begins in the 1970s (in A Vast Machine, Edwards marks a similar break occurring around the same time, but for slightly different reasons), and this is the beginning of confidence and the use of climate models to influence public opinion and policy.  This phase begins with the ascension of a new generation of climate modelers (Schneider, Kellog, and Hansen are the most frequently mentioned) who are driven by the urgency of climate change.  They argue in scientific papers that the that urgency of climate change demands that we use the best tools we have to understand the causes and effects as best as we can so that we might be able to intervene rapidly – a first-order political validation for the use of climate models. In other words, we must have confidence in the models because they are the best tools we have and the urgency of the problem demands that we use them.  Heymann provides the following quote from Schneider:

My view is that once we know reasonably well how an individual climatic process works and how it is affected by human activities (e.g. CO2-radiation effect), we are obliged to use our present models to determine whether the changes induced by these human activities could be large enough to be important to society.”

Had this new generation of modelers – coming of age in the era of the environmental movement – not taken such a political stance, the models might still have been used eventually.  However, it is questionable whether they would have developed the required confidence (by way of the other four methods mentioned above) for many more years without the initial impetus and push of confidence provided by this political urgency.  What this means is that politics runs through the practice of modeling from the very beginning, and that, contrary to the general sense that politics must be kept separate from science, in this case political urgency actually provides a degree of initial confidence and a basis for the development of further confidence without which climate modeling might have remained stagnant for a long time.

Post-Election Relief

Ans so the election was over without much surprise. I voted for Jill Stein yesterday.  I believe that we need more truly liberal discourse in this country, and I believe that, by giving my vote to the Green Party rather than the Democrats, I can incrementally make that possible.  Unfortunately, I don’t think she won enough votes in this election to gain any increased benefits or attention in subsequent elections, but I was continually struck by how she put herself on the line – getting arrested several times on the campaign trail – to make a statement and generate some of that discourse that’s needed.  I wish that more candidates were willing to make such sacrifices.

In spite of all of that, though, and in spite of what I’ve said in the past, I am relieved that Obama won another four years as President.  I don’t always agree with his policies, but he’s been able to make some headway against the conservative onslaught, and make possible some marginally progressive policies.  My hope is that he will continue this trend in the next four years – perhaps re-energized and reinvigorated by his win – and that, ever so slightly, the discourse (and practice) will shift a little back to the left after years of being stuck far to the right.  I think that, although Romney himself seems to actually be pretty moderate, electing him would have kept the push going right and we may have ended up going backwards significantly on issues like reproductive rights, gay rights, health care, and economic regulation. 

Now that the election is over, my hope is that we all – Presidents, Governors, Congress members, state and local authorities, as well as ordinary citizens – can move ahead and work together to build a better world for everyone. 

Gordian Entanglement

We like the legend of Alexander and the Gordian Knot because it’s an example of cutting through the mess to get to the core of a problem.  “Forget these silly entanglements, and move on!”  The problem with Alexander’s solution to the knot, however, is that, when the knot is cut, what’s left are shreds of useless rope.  There is no core, and ultimately we’re left with as much of a mess as when we started – only a different kind of mess.

Really untying the knot requires that we dig in, work with the knot, and risk getting entangled ourselves.

The Rituals of Electoral Politics

Those who have followed this blog for a while, and those who know me well are aware that I have a general distaste for traditional electoral politics in this country (see here, and here).  Perhaps that’s not so surprising since most people share that distaste.  I see the Presidential election cycle as a meta-ritual encompassing a number of smaller rituals (primaries, conventions, debates, stump speeches, etc.).  There is no inherent reason why these elections should be so dramatic and symbolic when they are, practically speaking, only about selecting a high level bureaucrat.  I think the real purpose behind the grandeur and drama of the Presidential election cycle is to, over the course of the ritual, symbolically deconstruct and subsequently reconstruct (starting on election night and going towards the inauguration) our image of the nation.  In doing so, I think there is a kind of sleight-of-hand at work – reminiscent of the sleight-of-hand that David Graeber describes in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value.  According to Graeber, the value that is created by the mundane work and interactions of ordinary individuals is abstracted and expropriated through the ritualized exchange of money.  In the election ritual, the energies, inspirations, and values of the people are abstracted (and – depending on your point of view, perhaps – expropriated) through the selection of this high level bureaucrat.  In these rituals, we symbolically place our hopes and values upon the body of this individual, and, when this person is elected, those hopes and values are dissipated into a space where they can make little, if any actual difference.  I don’t think that anyone designed it this way, I just think that that’s what it has become without our really realizing it.

It’s not that the President has no power – that is clearly not the case.  It’s that the President’s power is contingent and subject to feedback such that any changes s/he makes will not have to total, systemic effect that we seek.  We saw this in the sudden emergence of the Tea Party.  Certainly there were special interests behind it, egging it along, but there are also a lot of people who genuinely feel that Obama is ruining the country.  This effect severely hampered any attempts by Obama to make significant changes.  There were some partial successes, for sure, but the vast sweeping Change that we sought in his campaign was muffled and muted by the strong reaction from the Right.

What we crave by putting our values upon this person and this office is systemic change – the revolutionary transformation of the nation into the embodiment of our vision.  The problem is that the President is only one piece of a much larger machine.  Changing who occupies the position has noticeable effects for the working of the machine, but these effects are never revolutionary or systemic in the way that the election rituals make us believe.  As a result, the hopes that we place in whoever we select as President are dissipated within the workings of the machine.  The best thing that a President could do is to use his/her symbolic position as the embodiment of a certain set of values to encourage the people to continue to work, to continue to struggle for what they believe in.  I think Obama tried to do this in some ways – especially towards the beginning of his term – but with little success, and he was very quickly overwhelmed with other issues and concerns of the office.

Systemic change is possible. I have said before that it isn’t, but I misspoke.  What I meant to say was that systemic change takes work.  And it takes a lot of work by a lot of different people (and let’s not forget non-humans as well) over a large expanse of space and time.  It can’t be done simply by one person in one office for one brief period.  Think about all of the energy, time, and money that’s put into the election ritual.  All of that just to elect a simple bureaucrat.  Imagine if all of that were channeled into creating a better health care system, or fighting poverty, or improving the environment.  But instead it’s channeled into its own ritualized dissipation.  I’m not saying that we need to get rid of the electoral process or even its ritualization.  What I’m trying to convey is that the work – the struggle – cannot end with the election, and that, in some cases, there are better ways to use your energy and enthusiasm than on working to get a particular individual elected President.  After the election has been won, and the balloons have been dropped, and the parties have been thrown – this is only the beginning.  A new world awaits, but only as long as we continue to work to bring it into existence.

Eugene Debs and a Vision for the Future

Yesterday I posted the following links to Facebook – I thought today I’d share them with the rest of you.  First up, we have a video of Mark Ruffalo reading a speech that Debs gave in 1918 in Canton, OH in opposition to World War I.

It was this speech that landed Eugene Debs in court and ultimately prison under the Espionage Act’s provisions for sedition.  At his trial, Debs read this statement to the court.  The statement contains one of my all time favorite quotes, which I’ve had on the sidebar of my blogs since I began blogging:

“… years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Here are a few other good quotes:

“Let me call your attention to the fact this morning that in this system five per cent of our people own and control two-thirds of our wealth; sixty-five per cent of the people, embracing the working class who produce all wealth, have but five per cent to show for it.”

“I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and factories; I am thinking of the men in the mines and on the railroads; I am thinking of the women who, for a paltry wage, are compelled to work out their lives; of the little children, who in this system, are robbed of their childhood, and in their early, tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon, and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the machines while they themselves are being starved body and soul. I see them dwarfed, diseased, stunted, their little lives broken, and their hopes blasted, because in this high noon of our twentieth century civilization money is still so much more important than human life. Gold is god and rules in the affairs of men.”

“The five per cent of our people who own and control all of the sources of wealth, all of the nation’s industries, all of the means of our common life, it is they who declare war. It is they who make peace. It is they who control our destiny. And so long as this is true, we can make no just claim to being a democratic government, a self-governing people.”

Replace 5% with 1% and you’ll have the situation we are in today – little has changed in 100 years except the scale.  Debs was a socialist when that meant more than just the creation of social welfare programs.  For Debs, socialism meant the collective ownership of the means of production by the workers rather than by Capitalists who put up the money but do none of the work.  But now, even the suggestion of taxing people to pay for roads, bridges, and other infrastructure is labeled “socialist” and the term is used as an epithet – demeaning the vision of cooperation for the greater good that true Socialism represents.  We need that vision again in the US.  We need a vision that seeks to enrich the lives of all people without regard for race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other factor instead of the vision now which enriches the bank accounts (something that has too long been conflated with “life”) of a few while leaving the rest to eke out a meager living.  I think it’s time to reconsider what Debs was offering us – not to mimic the Socialism of the past, but to create a new vision for the future based on the same moral principles of cooperation, sharing, democracy, and freedom.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Science, and Politics

The following is an extended quote (I apologize for the length, but I couldn’t see cutting it down any further) from Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.  It’s probably unfair to characterize this as Robinson’s vision of politics as it is actually the vision of one of the characters in the book – Sax Russel.  One of the things I like most about Robinson’s writing is that each character has a very developed personality and approach to the world; Michel’s alchemy, Maya’s anger, Frank’s subtle manipulation, and Boone’s cosmopolitanism.  These are all depicted equally and rational in their own peculiar ways.  Sax is probably one of the most interesting characters.  A rigid scientist who is nonetheless very pragmatic in his understanding of social organization and politics.  He approaches these issues the same way he would approach a scientific or technical challenge – by thinking it through carefully, deliberately, and in an experimental fashion.  He recognizes that he cannot control everything, but offers hints, suggestions, and nudges here and there to move things, ever so slightly, in a desired direction.  Below are his musings on the political organization worked out in Da Vinci – a cooperative of scientists working on terraforming Mars.  I thought it was interesting, and I hope you will too.

As Sax wandered on, half listening to the conversations he passed, he was struck again by the apolitical nature of most scientists and technicians.  There was something about politics they were allergic to, and he felt it as well, he had to admit.  Politics was irreducibly subjective and compromised, a process that went entirely against the grain of the scientific method.  Was that true? These feelings and prejudices were subjective themselves.  One could try to regard politics as a kind of science – a long series of experiments in communal living, say, with all the data consistently contaminated.  Thus people hypothesized a system of governance, lived under it, examined how they felt about it, then changed the system and tried again.  Certain constants or principles seemed to have emerged over the centuries, as they ran through their experiments and paradigms, trying successively closer approximations of systems that promoted qualities like physical welfare, individual freedom, equality, stewardship of the land, guided markets, rule of law, compassion to all.  After repeated experiments it had become clear – on Mars at least – that all these sometimes contradictory goals could be best achieved in polyarchy, a complex system in which power was distrubuted out to a great humber of institutions.  In theory this network of distributed power, partly centralized and partly decentralized, created the greatest amount of individual freedom and collective good, by maximizing the amount of control that an individual had over his or her life.

Thus political science.  And fine, in theory.  But it followed that if they believed in the theory, people then had to devote a fair amount of time to the exercise of their power.  That was self-government, by tautology; the self governed.  And that took time.  “Those who value freedom must make the effort necessary to defend it,” as Tom Paine had said, a fact which Sax knew because Bela had gotten into the bad habit of putting up signs in the halls with such inspirational sentiments printed on them.  “Science is Politics by other means,” another of his signs had anounced, rather cryptically.

But in Da Vinci most people did not want to spend their time that way.  “Socialism will never succeed,” Oscar Wilde had remarked (in handwriting on yet another sign), “it takes up too many evenings.”  So it did; and the solution was to make your friends take up their evenings for you.  Thus the lottery method of election, a calculated risk, for one might get stuck with the job oneself someday.  But usually the risk paid off.  Which accounted for the gaiety of this annual party; people were pouring in and out of the French doors of the commons, onto the open terraces overlooking the crater lake, talking with great animation.  Even the drafted ones were beginning to cheerup again, after the solace of kavajava and alcohol, and perhaps the thought that power after all was power; it was an imposition, but the draftees could do some little things that no doubt were occuring to them even now – make trouble for rivals, do favors for people they wanted to impress, etc.  So once again the system had worked; they had warm bodies filling the whole polyarchic array, the neighborhood boards, the water board, the architectural review board, the project review council, the economic coordination group, the crater council to coordinate all these smaller bodies, the global delegates’ advisory board – all that network of small management bodies that progressive political theorists had been suggesting in one variation or another for centures, incorporating aspects of the almost-forgotten guild socialism of Great Britain, Yugoslavian worker management, Mondragon owndershp, Kerala land tenure, and so on.  An experiment in synthesis.  And so far it seemed to be working, in the sense that the Da Vinci techs seemed about as self-determined and happy as they had been during the ad hoc underground years, when everything had been done (appartently) by instict, or, to be more precise, by general consensus of the (much smaller) population in Da Vinci at the time

So running Da Vinci was a successful experiment, despite the fact that the citizens showed no interest in it.  If they had they might have been less happy.  Maybe ignoring government was a good strategy.  Maybe the definition of good government was the government you could safely ignore, “to finally get back to my own work!” as one happily buzzed ex-water-board chief was just now saying.  Self-government not being considered part of one’s own work!” (p. 433-535)