Archive for September, 2009

A crisis of trust?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

One sometimes hears it said that there’s a “crisis of trust in science” in the UK, though this seems to be based on impressions rather than evidence. So it’s interesting to see the latest in an annual series of opinion polls comparing the degree of public trust in various professional groups. The polls, carried out by Ipsos Mori, are commissioned by the Royal College of Physicians, who naturally welcome the news that, yet again, doctors are the most trusted profession, with 92% of those polled saying they would trust doctors to tell the truth. But, for all the talk of a crisis of trust in science, scientists as a profession don’t do so badly, either, with 70% of respondents trusting scientists to tell the truth. To put this in context, the professions at the bottom of the table, politics and journalism, are trusted by only 13% and 22% respectively.

The figure below puts this information in some kind of historical context. Since this type of survey began, in 1983, there’s been a remarkable consistency – doctors are at the top of the trust league, journalists and politicians vie for the bottom place, and scientists emerge in the top half. But there does seem to be a small but systematic upward trend for the proportion trusting both doctors and scientists. A headline that would be entirely sustainable on these figures would be “Trust in scientists close to all time high”.

One wrinkle that it would be interesting to see explored more is the fact that there are some overlapping categories here. Professors score higher than scientists for trust, despite the fact that many scientists are themselves professors (me included). Presumably this reflects the fact that people lump together in this category scientists who work directly for government and for industry together with academic scientists; it’s a reasonable guess that the degree to which the public trusts scientists varies according to who they work for. One feature in this set of figures that does interest me is the relatively high degree of trust attached to civil servants, in comparison to the very low levels of trust in politicians. It seems slightly paradoxical that people trust the people who operate the machinery of government more than they trust those entrusted to oversee it on behalf of the people, but this does emphasise that there is by no means a generalised crisis of trust in our institutions in general; instead we see a rather specific failure of trust in politics and journalism, and to a slightly lesser extent business.

Trust in professions in the UK, as revealed by the annual IPSOS/MORI survey carried out for the Royal College of Physicians.

Trust in professions in the UK, as revealed by the annual IPSOS/MORI survey carried out for the Royal College of Physicians. Click on the plot for a larger version.

Moral hazard and geo-engineering

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

Over the last year of financial instability, we’ve heard a lot about moral hazard. This term originally arose in the insurance industry; there it refers to the suggestion that if people are insured against some negative outcome, they may be more liable to behave in ways that increase the risk of that negative outcome arising. So, if your car is insured for all kinds of accident damage, you might be tempted to drive that bit more recklessly, knowing that you won’t have to pay for all the consequences of an accident. In the last year, it’s been all too apparent that the banking system has seen more that its fair share of recklessness, and here the role of moral hazard seems pretty clear – why should one worry about the possibility of a lucrative bet going sour when you think that the taxpayer will bail out your bank, if it’s in danger of going under? The importance of the concept of moral hazard in financial matters is obvious, but it may also be useful when we’re thinking about technological choices.

This issue is raised rather clearly in a report released last week by the UK’s national science academy, the Royal Society – Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty. This is an excellent report, but judging by the way it’s been covered in the news, it’s in danger of pleasing no-one. Those environmentalists who regard any discussion of geo-engineering at all as anathema will be dismayed that the idea is gaining any traction at all (and this point of view is not at all out of the mainstream, as this commentary from the science editor the Financial Times shows). Techno-optimists, on the other hand, will be impatient with the obvious serious reservations that the report has about the prospect of geo-engineering. The strongest endorsement of geo-engineering that the report makes is that we should think of it as a plan B, an insurance policy in case serious reductions in CO2 emission don’t prove possible. But, if investigating geo-engineering is an insurance policy, the report asks, won’t it subject us to the precise problem of moral hazard?

Unquestionably, people unwilling to confront the need for the world to make serious reductions to CO2 emissions will take comfort in the idea that geo-engineering might offer another way of mitigating dangerous climate change; in this sense the parallel with moral hazard in insurance and banking is exact. There are parallels in the potential catastrophic consequences of this moral hazard, as well. It’s likely that the largest costs won’t fall on the people who benefit most from the behaviour that’s encouraged by the belief that geo-engineering will be able to save them from the worst consequences of their actions. And in the event of the insurance policy being needed, it may not be able to pay out – the geo-engineering methods available may not end up being sufficient to avert disaster (and, indeed, through unanticipated consequences may make matters worse). On the other hand, the report wonders whether seeing geo-engineering being taken seriously might have the opposite effect – convincing some people that if such drastic measures are being contemplated, then urgent action to reduce emissions really is needed. I can’t say I’m hugely convinced by this last argument.