It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Friday, July 11, 2008

Great Moments in Unintentional Irony

In a more or less typical "economists who agree with my preconceptions are reasonable, economists who don't, aren't, and climate science doesn't really exist" essay, someone calling himself the Skeptical Optimist manages this wonderful blurt:
GW news is too frequently contaminated by confirmation bias, belief preservation, and rehearsed political dogma. I stop reading as soon as I detect any of that, which means I skip a lot of GW “news.”)

I was glad to see Freeman Dyson’s recent review...
(Link added by your humble editor. Needless to say, I skipped the rest...)

It is nice to see Mr. Optimist doing such a good job of avoiding confirmation bias.


AdamW said...

You should read the climate forums of UKww for many more of those.

On the otherhand, I wouldn't bother.

Steven said...

As usual Michael, you decide and name where the biases are. You never see your own.

Michael Tobis said...

You know, Steven, it strikes me that you could have been more clever with that critique.

Anyway, I read Dyson in an unbiased frame of mind and was horribly disappointed by the arrogance and foolishness. It always interests me when somebody else reads his stuff and finds it impressive.

Whether or not I have attained the sort of perfect knowledge that is attainable by economists aside, I know confirmation bias when I see it. A person reading Dyson on this subject who isn't appalled by the self-confident display of profound confusion is simply unqualified to make judgments about the quality of information on the topics at hand.

Zarquon said...

Optimist's idea of warding off "confirmation bias" is to avoid reading anything he doesn't already agree with? I think that's like pouring gasoline to extinguish a fire...

OK, true, it's a good idea not to read everything -- but that's not a way to prevent confirmation bias. It's just a heuristic to avoid wasting your time and brain cells on the same old stuff, and the heuristic only works properly if you have reasonably objective criteria to decide what to read and what not to read. (Mr. Optimist in contrast apparently decides what not to read based on strokes of magic genius.)

A non-exhaustive list of types of sources which go on my no-read list:

(1) sources which keep repeating the same scientific fallacy for the umpteenth time -- e.g. those which go "oh noes globul koolin!!!" after massaging and picking data in zillions of ways;

(2) sources which keep repeating the same logical fallacy, e.g. those which bash Al Gore day in day out for phantom reasons;

(3) sources which posture a lot and present no new facts, even if they're environmentalist sources; ...

-- bi, International Journal of Inactivism

Richard said...



Apologies if I referenced before, but Joe Nocera in NY Times wrote a column including Dyson, somewhat mocking the Rockefellers who tried a shareholder protest on Exxon. (Perhaps Nocera is where the Skeptical Optimist came across it.) The link:

In a rare moment of response, I emailed Nocera. my message, in part:

"There is a recurring religious theme that pops up in Dyson, and you pick up on in assessing the Rockefeller members who tried to pressure Exxon on climate change.

On the other hand, some might detect a religious streak in Dyson's faith in genetically engineered trees. Or in the religion of the free market as sole instrument for wisdom (not that I necessarily disagree, just that I don't always take things on faith).

To keep perspective about economics, notice this from the Scientific American:

And a piece in the June Harpers, "Our Phony Economy" by Jonathan Rowe.

To say nothing of the diverse views of economists themselves.

Devoting one of your future columns to the economist Simon Kuznets would be another way to balance out the scales for your readers, I think.

Our free market model right now is full of holes and missing data (some of which Kuznets tried to address, and his Nobel speech and earlier statements make interesting reading). That's just one more of the problems thwarting a good analysis of the world economy and climate change.

On the other hand, your skim of Dyson and Nordhaus makes a really good case for smoking cigarettes. Which would be this:

Future discounting -- the improved wealth and technical resources of the future -- means that we can best defer consequences of destructive behavior now, since the fixes will be cheaper later. (Engineered trees, for example.)

In the case of tobacco, work on lung cancer is decades ahead of any testable climate geoengineering scheme. It is conceivable that in 20 years, lung cancer may even have routine effective treatment. (That's another interesting column for you -- try to gauge which will be easier to solve, cancer or climate.)

According to a fascinating article in the current NYRB, tobacco apparently has a mild protective effect against Alzheimers. ("How the Mind Works," Rosenfield, Ziff, June 26 issue.)

If you're still hesitating about taking that first puff, I can even roll out a noted physicist for you, to match Dyson as a voice of authority: the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, the late Fred Seitz. At the end of his career, Seitz was a fan of tobacco in his role as consultant to RJ Reynolds."

end of note.

(Actually, I'm finding this pretty compelling reasoning to begin smoking.)