Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 7, 2007

Trust the Experts

Judging by the number of outraged responses, I seem to have struck a nerve with my post, “Maybe Al Gore Is Right.” Many readers wrote in to question the scientific consensus once again. As I said before, I’m not a scientist, much less a specialist in the field, so I don’t feel comfortable debating the pros and cons of the IPCC report. What mystifies me is why so many other readers who also aren’t experts feel comfortable disputing the experts’ judgment.

One reader, for instance, wrote: “The problem is that those who sound the alarm about catastrophic global warming tend to make statements like . . . ‘it has been the warmest January in 60 years.’ I am sure you see the logical disconnect there, but let me be explicit; they are acknowledging that there was a warmer January just 60 or so years ago. So, what does this prove?” Suffice it to say that the scientists behind the IPCC report didn’t base their conclusions on such anecdotes. The available scientific evidence, in their view, proves a human link to global warming with 90-percent certitude.

I have no problem accepting the collective wisdom of the global scientific community over the dissent of the popular novelist Michael Crichton and a few actual scientists, many of whom lack credentials in climatology or any related discipline. (I note that Kevin Shapiro, who answered my post, is a neuroscientist and medical student.) Imagine, by way of analogy, if I had gone to twenty oncologists and they all told me that I had cancer, but a metereologist buddy looked at the test results and told me to ignore the doctors because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Would Mr. Shapiro—or Mr. Crichton—applaud me in those circumstances for adopting the minority view?

A more fruitful line of argument is to discuss the policy implications of global warming—an area where we don’t have to defer to scientists. As I mentioned, I remain skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol. I think there are better, more market-friendly approaches we should consider, such as tradeable emission credits, more nuclear energy, more research on alternatives to fossil fuels, the elimination of sugar subsidies (to make sugar-derived ethanol more affordable), and higher gasoline taxes. Such policies would be a two-fer: not only would they reduce global warming, but they would reduce our dependence on oil, which comes from such unsavory states as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran. Which is why these sorts of ideas have been championed by Jim Woolsey and other conservatives, raising the possibility of a conservative/Green coalition to break our oil addiction.

Judging by the number of outraged responses, I seem to have struck a nerve with my post, “Maybe Al Gore Is Right.” Many readers wrote in to question the scientific consensus once again. As I said before, I’m not a scientist, much less a specialist in the field, so I don’t feel comfortable debating the pros and cons of the IPCC report. What mystifies me is why so many other readers who also aren’t experts feel comfortable disputing the experts’ judgment.

One reader, for instance, wrote: “The problem is that those who sound the alarm about catastrophic global warming tend to make statements like . . . ‘it has been the warmest January in 60 years.’ I am sure you see the logical disconnect there, but let me be explicit; they are acknowledging that there was a warmer January just 60 or so years ago. So, what does this prove?” Suffice it to say that the scientists behind the IPCC report didn’t base their conclusions on such anecdotes. The available scientific evidence, in their view, proves a human link to global warming with 90-percent certitude.

I have no problem accepting the collective wisdom of the global scientific community over the dissent of the popular novelist Michael Crichton and a few actual scientists, many of whom lack credentials in climatology or any related discipline. (I note that Kevin Shapiro, who answered my post, is a neuroscientist and medical student.) Imagine, by way of analogy, if I had gone to twenty oncologists and they all told me that I had cancer, but a metereologist buddy looked at the test results and told me to ignore the doctors because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Would Mr. Shapiro—or Mr. Crichton—applaud me in those circumstances for adopting the minority view?

A more fruitful line of argument is to discuss the policy implications of global warming—an area where we don’t have to defer to scientists. As I mentioned, I remain skeptical of the Kyoto Protocol. I think there are better, more market-friendly approaches we should consider, such as tradeable emission credits, more nuclear energy, more research on alternatives to fossil fuels, the elimination of sugar subsidies (to make sugar-derived ethanol more affordable), and higher gasoline taxes. Such policies would be a two-fer: not only would they reduce global warming, but they would reduce our dependence on oil, which comes from such unsavory states as Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Iran. Which is why these sorts of ideas have been championed by Jim Woolsey and other conservatives, raising the possibility of a conservative/Green coalition to break our oil addiction.

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Memory Deconstructed

It is unfortunate that, even as Americans have struggled with the form and meaning of the World Trade Center Memorial, they have mostly ignored similar efforts in other countries. Last week’s passing news interest in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which was defaced by vandals, might have provided useful lessons in what to avoid.

There was a brief spell of media curiosity when Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin memorial was approved in 1999, and another at its completion in May 2005. The only sustained media coverage came when it was learned that the company hired to apply an anti-graffiti coating to the memorial was a subsidiary of the firm that had manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi extermination camps. But this was a political story, and few, apart from architecture critics, have addressed the serious aesthetic questions raised by the memorial.

In fact, Eisenman has made a design that is peculiarly resistant to criticism. His memorial consists of 2,711 gray concrete pillars, closely spaced on a pitiless grid, and relieved only by the fluctuating heights of the pillars. Making my way through the geometric labyrinth on a recent visit, I experienced it in mortuary terms, as an abstract city of the dead. To criticize this funereal solemnity would seem disrespectful, like criticizing a cemetery for being a cemetery, and yet it must be asked if an allegory of symbolic tombstones was called for.

Eisenman achieved celebrity in the 1980’s as a champion of Deconstructivism, the architectural offshoot of the literary theory known as Deconstruction. Just as Deconstruction dismisses claims of truth and order as instruments for enforcing political power or social order, Deconstructivist architecture rejects all formal resolution. Buildings are designed to be open-ended, fragmentary, even absurd—as in Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, with its celebrated flight of stairs that leads to a dead end. Such an architecture is intellectually equipped to depict the Holocaust as an expression of the meaninglessness of the universe, but it is scarcely able to assert anything higher. Such is the fundamental vacuity of the Berlin memorial.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has shown that remembrance of the dead has both private and civic dimensions—both of which can be accommodated in a single design. Its wall and incised names provide a focus of private grief while its sunken plaza acts as a public gathering place. Eisenman’s claustrophobic memorial, by contrast, is organized so that the narrow paths between the pillars permit only one visitor to squeeze through at a time; the experience must therefore be solitary. With no generous public space, no place for communal experience, the memorial enforces a kind of existential isolation.

It does this with ruthless efficiency to be sure—overwhelming the visitor by its scale, monotony, and harsh industrial textures—but it sets it sights on nothing higher than inducing the thrill of a vicarious anguish. It recalls what the sociologist Nathan Glazer said in another context: “He is attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”

It is unfortunate that, even as Americans have struggled with the form and meaning of the World Trade Center Memorial, they have mostly ignored similar efforts in other countries. Last week’s passing news interest in Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, which was defaced by vandals, might have provided useful lessons in what to avoid.

There was a brief spell of media curiosity when Peter Eisenman’s design for the Berlin memorial was approved in 1999, and another at its completion in May 2005. The only sustained media coverage came when it was learned that the company hired to apply an anti-graffiti coating to the memorial was a subsidiary of the firm that had manufactured the Zyklon B gas used in Nazi extermination camps. But this was a political story, and few, apart from architecture critics, have addressed the serious aesthetic questions raised by the memorial.

In fact, Eisenman has made a design that is peculiarly resistant to criticism. His memorial consists of 2,711 gray concrete pillars, closely spaced on a pitiless grid, and relieved only by the fluctuating heights of the pillars. Making my way through the geometric labyrinth on a recent visit, I experienced it in mortuary terms, as an abstract city of the dead. To criticize this funereal solemnity would seem disrespectful, like criticizing a cemetery for being a cemetery, and yet it must be asked if an allegory of symbolic tombstones was called for.

Eisenman achieved celebrity in the 1980’s as a champion of Deconstructivism, the architectural offshoot of the literary theory known as Deconstruction. Just as Deconstruction dismisses claims of truth and order as instruments for enforcing political power or social order, Deconstructivist architecture rejects all formal resolution. Buildings are designed to be open-ended, fragmentary, even absurd—as in Eisenman’s Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, with its celebrated flight of stairs that leads to a dead end. Such an architecture is intellectually equipped to depict the Holocaust as an expression of the meaninglessness of the universe, but it is scarcely able to assert anything higher. Such is the fundamental vacuity of the Berlin memorial.

Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial has shown that remembrance of the dead has both private and civic dimensions—both of which can be accommodated in a single design. Its wall and incised names provide a focus of private grief while its sunken plaza acts as a public gathering place. Eisenman’s claustrophobic memorial, by contrast, is organized so that the narrow paths between the pillars permit only one visitor to squeeze through at a time; the experience must therefore be solitary. With no generous public space, no place for communal experience, the memorial enforces a kind of existential isolation.

It does this with ruthless efficiency to be sure—overwhelming the visitor by its scale, monotony, and harsh industrial textures—but it sets it sights on nothing higher than inducing the thrill of a vicarious anguish. It recalls what the sociologist Nathan Glazer said in another context: “He is attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness.”

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John Edwards’s Prescription

Give John Edwards credit for pushing health care onto center stage of the presidential campaign. Whatever one may think of his plan, making the case for universal health care so forcefully and so early is a shrewd bit of positioning.

 

Though Hillary has already suggested that she, too, wants universal health care, she is desperate not to make this the core of her campaign. Every conversation involving her and health care brings back memories of her Ira Magaziner days, when, working out of her West Wing office, she tried to introduce an unprecedented level of bureaucracy into the American health-care delivery system. The stench of that policy debacle still follows her.

 

Republicans, meanwhile, should be wary about thinking they can dismiss Edwards’s call for tax increases to fund universal health care as “very good news” for GOP candidates, as Patrick Toomey of the Club for Growth argues. The genuine inadequacies of the U.S. health-care system have been part of public debate for more than a decade. It is not unreasonable to believe that frustration might drive voters to consider some universal plan paid for by the rich.

 

The real response to Edwards ought to be that government-imposed universal health care, as seen across Europe and Canada, is failing badly. Not only are there the familiar stories about waiting lines for surgery and treatment, there is a growing body of evidence that countries where health care is guaranteed by the government are also places where people with diabetes, heart disease, and other common chronic illnesses are not receiving the care they need. The government doesn’t want to spend the money.

Republican candidates need a serious response to how to deal with uninsured Americans. But they also need to explain why the “universal” alternative espoused by Edwards is a path to lower-quality health care.

Give John Edwards credit for pushing health care onto center stage of the presidential campaign. Whatever one may think of his plan, making the case for universal health care so forcefully and so early is a shrewd bit of positioning.

 

Though Hillary has already suggested that she, too, wants universal health care, she is desperate not to make this the core of her campaign. Every conversation involving her and health care brings back memories of her Ira Magaziner days, when, working out of her West Wing office, she tried to introduce an unprecedented level of bureaucracy into the American health-care delivery system. The stench of that policy debacle still follows her.

 

Republicans, meanwhile, should be wary about thinking they can dismiss Edwards’s call for tax increases to fund universal health care as “very good news” for GOP candidates, as Patrick Toomey of the Club for Growth argues. The genuine inadequacies of the U.S. health-care system have been part of public debate for more than a decade. It is not unreasonable to believe that frustration might drive voters to consider some universal plan paid for by the rich.

 

The real response to Edwards ought to be that government-imposed universal health care, as seen across Europe and Canada, is failing badly. Not only are there the familiar stories about waiting lines for surgery and treatment, there is a growing body of evidence that countries where health care is guaranteed by the government are also places where people with diabetes, heart disease, and other common chronic illnesses are not receiving the care they need. The government doesn’t want to spend the money.

Republican candidates need a serious response to how to deal with uninsured Americans. But they also need to explain why the “universal” alternative espoused by Edwards is a path to lower-quality health care.

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