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Red Team – Blue Team: Why Science and Policy Should Not be Adjuncts for Each Other

Science informs us of the following: running off the Pacific Coast of North America from Northern California to Canada is the Cascadia Subduction Zone.  Current projections are of a 1/3 chance in the next 50 years of a magnitude 8.2 or greater earthquake along the fault, with a potential magnitude of up to 9.2.  The major cities of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, which have numerous structures of unreinforced masonry and are otherwise not designed to withstand so much as a 7.5, will be subject to massive devastation.  Additionally, massive tsunamis like those seen in 2004 and 2011 will be created, devastating coastal towns and cities from California north to Canada and across the Pacific Ocean.

This is what science tells us.

In order to prevent catastrophe, imagine that scientists recommend the following: (1) that committees be empaneled to survey locations and structures, including residences, commercial buildings, streets, rail, electrical, water and sewage for their ability to withstand an earthquake of 9.0; (2) that any structures unable to withstand such an earthquake be retrofitted, it possible, or torn down and rebuilt to withstand the shaking; and (3) that coastal communities additionally be subjected to engineering designed to effectively manage a tsunami of 15 meters in height down to San Francisco and up to 3 meters in San Diego.  Tens of millions of people are at risk of death.

The technology is there to do renovate the West Coast.  We have the engineering know-how to completely rebuild the west coast of the United States to withstand this event. Science also tells us that it is not a matter of if it will happen but when it will happen. Leading experts in the field of seismology and structural engineering tell us that this earthquake isn’t a notional threat that may happen.  It will, and unless we invest the money into saving lives today and renovate the Pacific Coast, millions may die.

That the US has Not Renovated the West Coast to Floating Tank Specifications is Not Anti-Science

The State of California has long been aware of the dangers of earthquakes and has created building codes designed to adapt to that threat.  For a brief history, the first building codes were most concerned with the prospect of dangers from fire. As a result, masonry structures were preferred due to being fairly resistant to fire damage.  This changes in 1933 when an earthquake struck and destroyed these structures.  In the early 1970s, the Sylmar earthquake showed that nonductile unreinforced masonry was particularly ill-suited for the seismic hazards.

Still, earthquake codes have not required resistance to the Big One – the name for an earthquake around 8.0 on the San Andreas fault.  Rather, the Codes are intended to withstand those quakes in the 6-7 range.  The reason for this is simple: it would cost too much to prepare for the worst scenario.

Consider, for example, policies that could save numerous lives and prevent a lot fo damage that are not done.  A national speed limit of 5 mph could save tens of thousands of lives.  Science can prove it.  But the speed limit is much higher. Is it antiscience?

The answer is a resounding no.  There are other policies at issue. There are other considerations to be weighed in the balance from a political standpoint.  Costs, benefits, implementation, Constitutional limits – they all must be considered.

I am not talking about denying climate science. I get it. The earth is getting warmer and there are projected impacts.  Just like the projected Cascadia earthquake, there is more at work and far broader context than trying to prevent all damage and destruction that can result.

Blue Team/Red Team has Little Business in Science and a Big Place in Politics

Blue team/Read team has a long history in military use.  It was used in thought exercises and war games, right down to training a unit with Opposing Forces.  In its simplest uses, it’s a debate: red versus blue.  There is a proposed action.  The red team argues the merits and demerits and costs and benefits.  The blue team responds and argues its merits and demerits and costs and benefits.

red team blue team
Red Team Not Allowed.  Because Science?

These can be done any time or anywhere.  Get with your spouse and talk about whether to eat in or go out for dinner.  There are costs and benefits to that activity and different thoughts.

Consider now a President deciding what to do with climate change.  A prudent thing for a President to do is to consider all angles.  This cannot be done with a one-sided panel. This cannot be done with a panel consisting of one discipline.

Rather, in order to get the discussions out there, there have to be pros and cons.  There have to be climate scientists, industry folks, economists, and even PR folks.

Blue Team/Red Team Exercises are Collaborative Processes

Lawsuits go the same way.  You’ve got two sides, each advocating for some position.  Both sides will have their own experts who will express opinions as a scientific fact about what happened.  Picture a car crash.  There will be for each side an accident reconstructionist, a physician or more to opine about the cause of injuries and the extent of the injuries, there will be economist to talk about how much money the accident cost the plaintiff in wages, medical expenses, etc.  Both sides – a red and a blue – battling before a single person to determine the outcome.

Ah, but do those lawyers go into a trial not knowing what the other side will say?  No. Those lawyers will have done their work by getting records, taking depositions, etc.  They are gathering information not just on their case but also on what the other side is going to say.

Why on earth would a lawyer want to know what the other side is going to say about something?  The reasons are: (1) because they have to be prepared to defend against what the other side is doing; (2) the other has information to fill in facts that are not known; and (3) most importantly, it drives settlement.

Any advocate is going to be tunnel-visioned.  That person is going to set his or her mind on something and select those facts that best fit the narrative.  When the stakes are really big, what do those lawyers do?  They practice.  They will hire a whole team of people to be the opposition and poke holes in their case.

By repeatedly going through the red team/blue team exercises, the people involved become familiar with all sides of the story.  A trial is a red team/blue team exercise. Anybody advocating that only one side should be allowed to present a side of the story is not really looking for a truth but looking for an outcome.

In policy, e=mc^2 is not the subject of debate.  However, “should we be increasing nuclear power generation” – which is based upon e=mc^2 – is certainly a policy question. Nuclear power has its positives and negatives. It has its advocates and it has its detractors.  The Union of Concerned Scientists has taken a group position against nuclear power due to its determination of the risks involved versus the benefits.  Other organizations of scientists advocate for it – because they determine that nuclear power, for its risks, is less risky than fossil fuels.

Science Doesn’t Need to Work this Way

Science, as it has become widely accepted, isn’t for making policy recommendations. Science is a process for obtaining factual information about things.  S(1-a)/4=eoT^4 is not a terrible thing nor is it a great thing. It is what it is.

And certainly, there are plenty who see benefits to climate change, some who see little to be overly concerned about benefits, and those who see nothing but catastrophe.  All should have a place at the political table. None of them should probably have any business on the science side of things.

So if I’m an airline pilot and I ask, “What’s the takeoff distance given the density altitude, temperature and gross weight?” the scientific answer would be, “6,300 feet.” I then look at the measurement and see, “the runway is 5,800 feet. The plane will not lift off under these circumstances.” This is science and a factual conclusion reached on the basis of the data.

If the answer to the question about takeoff distance is, “This is terrible and it’s only going to get worse” then I am not dealing with fact but opinion.

On the other hand, rarely is the situation this simple.  I want a red team/blue team.  As the captain I can say, “Okay.  It is too hot, we are too high and we are too heavy to take off on this runway.  What can we do about this?” The options can come down to, “we are 400 pounds heavy – throw off a couple of passengers” or “we can safely eliminate 500 pound of fuel.” It can be, “the temperature is forecast to drop 10 degrees in 45 minutes. We can try then.” Or the option can be, “Make the runway longer.” Or even, “Cancel the flight.”

What is the best decision?  There is no objective answer to that question.  One side will prevail and the other side won’t.

This is politics instead of science.  I myself do not want policy to be based on dogma or on confirmation bias.  The last thing I want before a decision is made is for the decision maker to deliberately exclude other interests.

Science and Policy Must Remain Complementary But Distinct

Science cannot answer the question of whether CO2 is good or bad.  It can’t. It comes down to a person’s individual opinion of it.  For anyone to paint science as the determination of what a person should do, that person is confusing the role of science.

Politics should certainly stay out of science.  e=mc^2 is not a right-wing or left-wing thing. On the other hand, science should respect its own realm and merely provide information for policymakers to weigh and balance as they see fit. For any group, be they scientists or religious, to lobby that a policymaker should exclude information from its weighing of policy options is political by definition.

And make no mistake about it, science does not act as a purifier for politics.  Politics is like cyanide and science is like water: mixing them does not purify the cyanide but instead just makes the water poisonous.  Let science and policy work together but maintain separate characters.

Scientists Should Certainly Engage In Policy Advocacy – But Must Not Frame Themselves As Arguing Scientific Fact

This is not to say that scientists should not be politically active.  Scientists are just as qualified as anybody to engage in political discourse.  However, scientists are warned that, like a doctor, their credibility is put at stake when they frame their subjective advocacy of policy as the statement of objective truth.  “I am a scientist, and the science says that we need to genetically engineer sickle-cell trait into every person to avoid death by malaria, and we have the knowledge to do just that.”

Because while most people with a minimum of explanation can understand that sickle cell provides resistance to malaria, it is also understood not only that sickle cell trait carries with it some pretty nasty side effects, but also that such a demand is a political position and not a scientific one.

Politics and science are not intended to be adjuncts for each other.  Let anyone do science.  Let anyone be involved in politics.  Let us not kid ourselves and others that science requires anything other than honest reporting of results.

Scientists and engineers created the atomic bomb.  Whether to use it and how to use it was not a scientific decision but a purely political one.



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