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Technical hope-mongering

Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering: "Credit crunch" focus as symptom of a dangerous mindset (Part #7)

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Many of the challenges currently faced by humanity are reframed as challenges with which it is hoped that technology may be expected to deal -- as evident in the case of global warming, the food crisis and the energy crisis. Much is made of "human ingenuity" and its capacity to respond to such crises.

Technocrats, and representatives of industries associated with relevant technologies, are articulate in promoting such possibilities and in encouraging reliance on the remedies to hand, in the pipeline or which may yet be discovered -- especially when they constitute an unthinking extension of current business models. Obvious examples are genetically modified food products, geo-engineering and nuclear fusion. The focus on solutions, calling upon existing expertise and predispositions, is significant in the manner in which it precludes debate on other possibilities challenging existing mindsets.

It is however useful to recognize the extent to which "investment" in such technologies can be appropriately recognized as an exercise in hope for a fruitful outcome. In this sense promotion of such solutions, which often evoke controversy, needs to be understood as a form of hope-mongering often with little consideration for the Precautionary Principle. Specifically those accepting such approaches are called upon to hope that:

  • they will indeed produce what is promised -- despite considerable experience with problematic implementation of large-scale projects involving new technologies, whether in terms of delivery delays, cost-overruns or unforeseen difficulties

  • there will be no unforeseen downstream effects on the environment -- despite considerable experience with such difficulties, as with nuclear power, large dams, introduction of species

  • the arguments made are indeed well-made and not simply a means of disguising other agendas

  • the technologies will not result in problematic synergistic processes with other such solutions, notably as a consequence of the increased dependency on higher degrees of complexity whose implications it is a challenge to understand, whether or not such understanding is sought

  • the technologies that receive funding do indeed constitute optimal responses and have not simply been selected through dubious project evaluation processes -- despite considerable experience of the problematic processes through which projects are selected and the manner in which the evaluation process may be distorted in support of other agendas

Such hope-mongering is associated with a call to believe increasingly complex chains of argument justifying theories in support of technical solutions -- some of which may even require hundreds, if not thousands of pages, even challenging their credibility in the eyes of other specialists, as discussed elsewhere (Credibility of connectivity: how much "moonshine" in any conjecture?, 2007).

Perhaps the most fundamental feature of technological hope-mongering is the confidence attributed to future human ingenuity -- which few would choose to question even if they were able to do so. This has been best articulated by Thomas Homer-Dixon (The Ingenuity Gap: how can we solve the problems of the future? 2000) with a call to wake up to the fearful possibility that blithe trust in science and technology map be misplaced. For him, human ingenuity may indeed not be capable of coping with the emerging crises of population growth and environmental despoliation.

None of this is to deny the capacity to produce technical solutions in response to uncertainty and complex dilemmas. The question is how inappropriately and prematurely. This is best characterized in well-known phrases such as that of Myron Tribus "There is a simple answer to every question and it is usually wrong" or that variously attributed to Will Rogers and H L Mencken 'There is a simple solution to every problem - and it is always wrong". This has in turn been variously paraphrased, for example: "For every human problem there is a solution that is quick, simple, inexpensive -- and wrong".

Some solutions may well constitute a potential exemplification of the Postcautionary Principle -- as variously evident in the compilation by the Edge Foundation (What Are You Optimistic About?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better, 2007).

Dangerous misinformation
We lean ever more heavily on experts. But who can we now trust? Corporate PR has become so sophisticated that it's almost impossible for most people to tell the difference between genuine science and greenwash, or real grassroots campaigns and the astroturf lobbies concocted by consultants. PR companies set up institutes with impressive names which publish what purport to be scientific papers, sometimes in the font and format of genuine journals. They accuse real scientists of every charge that could be levelled at themselves: junk science, hidden funding, undisclosed interests and inflated credentials. (George Monbiot, The Guardian, 23 September 2008)

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