Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to Think About the World's Problems

I needed a break from environmental catastrophism, so today's post refers to two positive comments designed to promote thought and constructive action.
The first is the latest comment from Bjorn Lomborg who continues to strive for realistic thinking on policy priorities, especially those related to the environment, sustainability and development.  As he writes:
  • The global food crisis has sadly underlined the danger of continuing on our current path of fixating on poor solutions to high-profile problems instead of focusing on the best investments we could make to help the planet.
  • Acknowledging that some investments shouldn't be our top priority isn't the same as saying that the challenges don't exist. It simply means working out how to do the most good with our limited resources. It will send a signal, too, to research communities about areas that need more study.
The second article, is a commentary by Ronald Bailey in the form of a review of a new book by Terence Kealey on the failure of centralised government planning for science.  It tackles a central question:
  • Does government funding of scientific research speed technological progress and spur economic growth?
The answer is presumed to be axiomatic: of course government investment is essential to the initiation of change and for this reason it is basic within every advocate's solution for environmental progress.  Indeed, it is this presumption and a perceived disdain for capitalism that precludes many advocates from considering other options.  However, the evidence does not sustain the proposition:
  • Kealey shows in nearly every case the crucial inventions of the past two and half centuries were called forth by markets, not invented by scientists working from ivory towers. These include the steam engine, cotton gin, textile mills, railroad engines, the revolver, the electric motor, telegraph, telephone, incandescent light bulb, radio, the airplane—the list is nearly endless.
  • Everyone now agrees that centralized planning fails to produce economic progress. Kealey may well be on to something when he argues that centralized planning also fails to produce scientific progress.
First, teach people how to think.  Then challenge them to think properly.  Lomborg and Kealey provide grist for those wanting to understand that the future can be characterized by political rhetoric and hot air: or by decisive intervention, technological innovation and material progress.  The former rests on advocacy: the latter on entrepreneurship.