The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Friday, October 31, 2008


Eli is going on about incoherence of the denialists . Things Break had a sighting in the comments here recently:
In reading past comments at Dot Earth, or by either Spencer or Christy (I can't remember which), I don't understand where the myth that those who seek to avoid the worst aspects of climate change are callous towards the rights of those in poorer nations comes from.

A few years back, the smear was that we wanted to funnel the hard-earned tax dollars of white Christians to the brown third world as part of a massive Red Conspiracy. I'm curious as to when this newer meme started and why it seems to have taken hold despite it's obvious conflict with the older one.
I have been doing some thinking about how to tell real experts from fake experts. A single sound bite (on a topic on which the listener is inexpert) reveals nothing. You have to look at the whole record of the speaker and the speaker's close allies to determine who is an expert and who is playing one on TV. The "tell" is coherence. The core problem is that people who pay insufficient attention and people who don't themselves understand coherence have influence, especially in a democracy.

Many people don't seem to understand that ideas have to be tested for coherence and have to pass the test. Refusing to do interviews is not a laughing matter; it simply declares immunity from any coherence test at all.

Jane Smiley has a terrifying rumination about the incoherence of the American "conservative" movement here. For what it's worth I don't think it's conservative at all. I'm a dyed in the wool Trudeau Liberal myself, (I'm a Montreal Texan and I ain't fixin' to start changin' now) but I respect and draw upon conservatism that actually conserves things. One of the things it ought to conserve is intellectual rigor.

In the end, Ross Perot's position on just about everything was the right one. "I don't know everything. I'd just get the experts together and have them hash it out. Then I'd figure out how to get it done." The trick is being able to identify the experts. So you have to be able to demonstrate that you yourself understand the coherence test, and the best way to do that is to be coherent.

Changing your mind is one thing; within reason it is a good sign, a sign that you don't operate dogmatically. Saying two things simultaneously that can't possibly both be true is another. Coherence is important because it is the sign of actual thought.


David B. Benson said...

Has Greenspan passed this teet?

Michael Tobis said...

Where economists stand on this test is indeed a good question in my opinion. I think you may find individual economists coherent while finding incoherence in the field, but that is just a guess as matters stand.

The possibility of an objective test for coherence is an interesting prospect.

Note, though, that internal coherence is necessary to a position well-adapted to reality, but it is insufficient. The position must also be coherent with reality itself.

David B. Benson said...

The thesaurs gives 'consistency' as a synonym for 'coherence'. Here is a definition of consistency:

4: (logic) an attribute of a logical
system that is so
constituted that none of the
propositions deducible from the
axioms contradict one another.

NOw neo-classical mathematical economics is consistent in this sense, I think. But it is not science, in that the axioms do not describe reality.

Hank Roberts said...

November 2, 2008
Economic View
Challenging the Crowd in Whispers, Not Shouts

ALAN GREENSPAN, the former Federal Reserve chairman, acknowledged in a Congressional hearing last month that he had made an “error” in assuming that the markets would properly regulate themselves, and added that he had no idea a financial disaster was in the making. What’s more, he said the Fed’s own computer models and economic experts simply “did not forecast” the current financial crisis.

Mr. Greenspan’s comments may have left the impression that no one in the world could have predicted the crisis. Yet ... lots of people were worried about the housing boom and its potential for creating economic disaster. It’s just that the Fed did not take them very seriously.
Speculative bubbles are caused by contagious excitement about investment prospects. I find that in casual conversation, many of my mainstream economist friends tell me that they are aware of such excitement, too. But very few will talk about it professionally.

Why do professional economists always seem to find that concerns with bubbles are overblown or unsubstantiated? I have wondered about this for years, and still do not quite have an answer. It must have something to do with the tool kit given to economists (as opposed to psychologists) and perhaps even with the self-selection of those attracted to the technical, mathematical field of economics. Economists aren’t generally trained in psychology, and so want to divert the subject of discussion to things they understand well. They pride themselves on being rational. The notion that people are making huge errors in judgment is not appealing.

In addition, it seems that concerns about professional stature may blind us to the possibility that we are witnessing a market bubble. We all want to associate ourselves with dignified people and dignified ideas. Speculative bubbles, and those who study them, have been deemed undignified.

In short, Mr. Janis’s insights seem right on the mark. People compete for stature, and the ideas often just tag along. ...

-------end excerpt-----

Also worth noting:

Greenspan explained his error by noting the infrequency of banking panics. Greenspan called the current financial crisis a "once-in-a-century credit tsunami."

Greenspan's centennial metaphor is roughly accurate. The previous financial crisis of this magnitude began in 1929 and continued until 1933. Afterward, despite Herculean efforts to reconstruct the financial system and recapitalize weakened banks, the U.S. economy remained in the doldrums for a decade.

But, with our current regulatory regime, rather than "once in a century," we should expect financial cataclysms like the current crisis to occur, on average, every 15 years.

After the Great Depression, financial regulations emphasized stability and prohibited banks from behaving in ways that risked market meltdowns.

Congress began dismantling that safety-first system in the late 1980s and overturned the last significant Depression-era restrictions in 1999. In other words, the current financial system – which emphasizes efficiency and innovation – has been in place for less than 20 years. The bulk of the system came into operation in the mid-1990s, a little more than 10 years ago.

If we take 1987 as the starting point of the current financial system, then the average time to failure – which is what statisticians mean when they say a "once in a something event" – is 20 years. If we date the starting point of the system in the mid-1990s and recognize that the subprime-meltdown began in 2007, then the average time to failure is little more than 10 years.

-------end excerpt--------

And a reminder that "bucket shops" (the predecessor to credit derivative instruments) were illegal in almost every state; the repeal of federal law and preemption keeping the states from enforcing their laws is very recent:

Coherence? Incoherence?
Cui bono?
Follow the illusory money (off the cliff ...)

EliRabett said...

incoherence is the perfect description. Wish I had thought of it. BTW, take a look at Reality Check on economics and the blue world

gravityloss said...

Michael Tobis, I sincerely think you should quantify the effects of global warming to make your coherence on the comprehensive subject better.

This post has no sarcasm. I heartily agree with you on most stuff you post.

It's just where I think you have your least publicized spot on this blog's record.

I am myself of the somewhat pessimistic school on the scenarios: most likely agreements will fail, vast amounts of CO2 will be emitted, synthetic fuels from coal and other sources will be used. Some effects will happen, but not the most catastrophic unlikely ones will pass. Humanity will adapt, some people will die (the poorest) and there will be lots of refugees etc.

Most people think it's just normal as they don't really remember the past. ("What do you mean there wasn't open water on the north pole before?")

Most ordinary people don't think the world can be changed, they just try to make do with what they have, what they encounter.
"Business as usual" has become a "force of nature". Stanislaw Lem takes this to absurd extremities in his books. Very highly recommended stuff.

Michael Tobis said...

GL: I agree that accessible and yet quantitative assessments are needed, but why is that the responsibility of this blog?

I construe the purpose of this blog to be a place for me to think about and hopefully start conversations about how people are managing the earth and the relevant knowledge. I try to account for the possibility of a broad audience but I don't generally aim at one.

There are quite a few attempts to explain the situation in existence. Eli's list of "online textbooks" in his sidebar is an excellent place to start. So are the IPCC reports and especially the latest overall SPM.

I did make some attempt at outreach last year while I was in the employ of KCET as a paid blogger on their WIRED Science site. This turns out to be much harder than one might think.

A comprehensive and simultaneously quantitative picture for the general public is a very high ambition, higher than I can manage by myself at this time. I have some ideas how such a thing might be better achieved, but I don't have the resources to create it any time soon.

In short, what you ask for is certainly an area that is worth working on, but it is not among the immediate ambitions for this blog. Meanwhile there are several excellent places to look for this sort of information.