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)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Incremental Radicalism and Other Awkward Beliefs

I enjoyed writing the previous entry, yet wondered if it would garner any response. So far, not much. At the risk of losing my audience completely, let me revisit it.

The Question of Openness

But the radical openness question itself is an interesting one. Seeing Mosher as a proto-Assange and ourselves as an early victim of Wikeleakism scrambles the usual, straightforward alignment where all of us are arrayed in two angry clumps.

It's clear that the most widely celebrated blog articles tend to be those that align with one of the clumps. My previous ambivalent piece on openness gets relatively little attention because 1) it's not clear how the "sides" are arrayed on the issue and 2) I take an ambivalent position.

This is disturbing to me. I think cases where 1 apply are far more interesting than issue where they don't. They are also healthier. If we can engage on matters where our positions are not predetermined by other positions, perhaps we can start to remember what a proper argument looks like.

On Being a Moderate in Radical Times

I am beginning to realize my core quandary as a writer. I am consistently cast as a radical when in fact I consider myself the most cowardly and contingent of middle-of-the-road liberals.

The facts on the ground are radical. Our adaptations to radical changes are of necessity going to be disruptive. It seems to me that given this inescapable fact, one should seek transitions that are as little disruptive of existing adaptations as possible.

People think I'm a radical because they think I advocate radical changes. But in fact I am a conservative. Changes terrify me; changes lead to mass hysteria which lead to dangers that aren't limited to this side of genocide. My own life is, among other things, a story of a recovery from a genocide I never saw but which my parents barely escaped.

I do not advocate radical changes. The least radical changes I anticipate are pretty severe. I think we should try to optimize for the smallest adequate changes given that our current trajectory is massively unsustainable. I just don't think we should pretend that business as usual is possible.

Some examples of things radicals want to change but I would leave more or less status quo:

Energy should be provided by giant corporations. Knowledge should be provided by universities. Public discourse should be organized by journalistic enterprises. Wealth should be primarily distributed through employment with a modest backstop from government. Government regulation should to some extent protect the interests of the least able, and should also design to allow for individual ambition, but protection of the interests of the powerful is also reasonable.

If huge changes were not being forced upon us by inescapable physical constraints, I might argue against any of those points, or countenance arguments against them. But we need to address our attentions to the places where very large adaptations are necessary. Land use, water use, energy use, infrastructure resilience and education are in need of massive reform. That's plenty on our plates. Anything that can be patched together and kept in use ought to be, while we deal with our urgent issues.

If It's Not Important, Why Think About It?

So, much though I understand and appreciate the motivations for open science, and much though I understand the pressures under which the scientific process operates, my argument is that I don't see rushing to rock the boat in this direction as an especially urgent matter.

It comes from my sense of the current situation as an emergency. Given the rate of changes we face, I am reluctant to add additional changes to the mix.

Just the same I would like to engage the question, though. This is partly because I'm not sure my argument is convincing. Mostly, though, I find the topic interesting because it's one where our pathetic and tedious polarization so far hasn't kicked in. Most of McIntyres acolytes are right wingers, but the most cogent argument against radical openness, I think, comes from right winger Mark Halperin.

Maybe if we don't know what we are expected to think about something, we can actually practice thinking, rather than team loyalty and rationalization? That would be worth something.


Lazar said...

"At the risk of losing my audience completely"

fewer comments are not necessarily evidence of disinterest... the maxim above the comment box is "Before you speak, ask yourself if what you have to say will improve on silence."

these issues and your thoughts are more complex than the food fight fuel... for example...

"as in any situation where the purchaser (in this case the grant agency) and the beneficiary (in this case the future users of scientific knowledge) are not the same, this leads to distortions"

"Stability of market conditions reduces costs; a readjustment of market rules to a more sensible configuration punishes those who most successfully adapted to the old configuratiuon."

your thoughts are enjoyable to read and fuel for contemplation... there is no obvious improvement to silence... this is a good thing!

Lazar said...

of course there may be food fighters whom may be disappointed...

"in fact I am a conservative. Changes terrify me"

conservatism is pragmatic... thoughts on the french revolution, it's all there... 'progressive vs reactionary' is propaganda... we are for progress... and motherhood and apple pie... but in the mix there is market fundamentalism, small government fundamentalism and political corruption... whilst team cheering on both 'sides' hinders clear thinking about the mess...

manuel "moe" g said...

Blogger's comment box (and my wife) daily remind me I am a long-winded fool. Part 1 of 2

This is how I would restate what I think your position is:

If we existed in a community of perfect rationalism, different viewpoints would not be evidenced by actions, but by what tradition of wisdom/sagacity informed those actions.

Stepping out of the way of a freight train is not any of these things: Progressive, Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Marxist, etc.

Obviously, people can be informed by different traditions of wisdom/sagacity and still arrive at the same conclusion.

Labeling *very* *specific* *acts* with the terms Progressive, Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Marxist, etc, _irrespective_ of situation and context, is anti-intellectual, and the mark of someone excited by tribalism past the point of being able to sustain rational analysis.

manuel "moe" g said...

The fool continues. Part 2 of 2

The issue of "Mosher as a proto-Assange". This intellectual point is interesting, but way to sophisticated to apply to the problem of Mosher. "Fox guarding the hen-house"... Mosher has never exhibited any behavior that would disqualify him from being diagnosed as a sociopath... "What is good for the goose is good for the gander" -- how about all Koch Bros. emails released as sign of good faith... If Mosher is doing good work, others, less vile, will follow suit by taking the analysis further and also making improvements...

The tool to use on a gnat like Mosher should not be any more complicated than a flyswatter. If somebody fights the point, with all the information available on the tactics of Mosher, they prove themselves to be hopeless partisans or hopelessly open to bamboozlement from any and all of the dishonest.

Greg said...

I certainly understand the point you're making when you say (of general concepts of governance) "Anything that can be patched together and kept in use ought to be, while we deal with our urgent issues." (where the urgent issues are disruptive climate changes).

At the risk of sounding radical though, the degree to which our current system of governance has been captured by wealthy interests is a very large part of the problem preventing an intelligent response to disruptive climate change.

Steve Bloom said...

Greg mentioned the obvious contradiction before I got a chance to:

"protection of the interests of the powerful is also reasonable."


"I just don't think we should pretend that business as usual is possible."

This is indeed the archtypical liberal error. The coming radical changes will lead (early indications are much in evidence) to desperate action on the part of the oligarchs and their supporters, which action will be aimed at putting the costs of the change onto others as much as possible.

Michael, that this is not entirely clear to you just makes me shake my head.

Grypo Saurus said...

It should be evidenced by our current economic problems. Change came. Who paid the piper? That said, I believe Michael is on the right track, as far as, segmenting off priorities that need to change (the only one I completely disagree with is allowing corporations to control energy -- that is -- unless regulated to be more like public trusts) and letting others remain stable. Most resource hog countries like the US have systems in place that allow for the taming of the oligarchy, the question is whether we will use them or not.

Michael Tobis said...

Exposes on TARP abuses notwithstanding, I find it amazing how few people understand or remember that Geithner and Obama saved the world from what looked like it would be a pretty spectacular ball-dropping by the Bushies.

Andy S said...

As Lazar noted, the admonition above the comment box has caused me to scrap several comments before hitting the "publish" button. Michael, you should not therefore interpret silence as indifference.

I think that it's a scandal that the results of research funded by the state is published in for-profit journals and that the public has to pay per-article charges of $30 to read a paper. The reviewers aren't paid, the authors (or their employers) may even have to pay a page charge to the publisher.

An incremental change might be for the grant agencies to insist that all publications arising from the grant should pass into the public domain after, say, a year or so. Perhaps it would be reasonable for the publishers to then demand a small reproduction charge (a dollar or two, like an iTunes song).

You would think that authors would support or even demand this, since their only goal is to be read. (I know, most of the readership has institutional library access.)

My own handful of articles are on my website for free download by those very few people who stumble across them and are sufficiently interested to read them. Copyright be damned. Anyway, I bought a whole bunch of reprints that went in the recycle bin years ago. Maybe we need a Wikileaks site of all published scientific articles. At least, the threat of that could prompt the publishers and research institutions into reform.

Here's a good essay on copyright:
The difficult balance of intellectual property

Lou Grinzo said...

I think that the dirty little secret -- which we should not let remain a secret -- is that many of us advocating swift and major action on a variety of sustainability problems are just as conservative as Michael is. I certainly am. I'm said repeatedly that I detest many of the things we will have to do in the coming years and decades, many of which would not have been necessary at all (or only required to a much lower level) if we had started taking action sometime during the Carter Administration.

But once again, I come back to medical analogies. The diagnosis is very grim and the treatment is far from pleasant, but it still beats the heck out of doing little to nothing and hoping the array of doctors we've already consulted are somehow wrong.

Arthur said...

Michael, thanks for these comments, I largely agree. In my view change in all these areas (energy production, science, journalism, universities, etc.) is inevitable, but I've always been an advocate for incremental change and have seen it produce what seem like revolutions in a peaceful, cooperative, albeit sometimes slow manner. Small, say 3 to 5% changes don't look like much at the time they're happening. But persistent year-after-year change of that nature can produce essentially complete turnarounds in a decade or two, if consistently applied in the needed direction.

I think one of our roles is to keep the pressure on, to ensure those small changes we can influence consistently go in the direction necessarily for a future as positive as possible.

ijish said...

MT, instead of arguing abstracts, I'll just grab some specific news items from Climate Progress and ask you what you think of them:

Matt Nisbet recently wrote an error-filled paper on environmentalist spending versus fossil fuel lobby spending. Joe Romm deliberately broke the embargo to debunk it before it can take hold in the mainstream media. Is Joe's deed a "radical" act which can result in "genocide"?

Van Jones made a fiery speech at Power Shift 2011. Is the speech a "radical" act which can result in "genocide"?

These are extremely pertinent questions. Of course, you're free to ignore these questions, but in that case the "audience" is, indeed, free to ignore you.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

Frank, to your questions, no and no, obviously.

steven said...

What an odd lot. Apparently, now I'm a sociopath. The differential diagnosis offered is also odd. But what the heck everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Essentially, I believe something along the lines of reproducible results. Simply, a paper is not science, a paper is the advertisement for the science. The real science is the data as used and the method as performed. And, I have rational right to withhold assent to the propositions you propose, if you refuse me access to the data and methods. You can keep your data to yourself and your code to yourself, but then you cannot demand that I should believe what you write in a paper. This is not the first time I have said this. You'll find it back in 2007. I'm perfectly happy to let people keep their code and data to themselves. However, I'm not bound to assent to what they claim to prove. You have to show your work. The paper is not the work. The paper describes the work, summarizes the work. It's ink on paper. The work is the method as used executing on the data as used.
So, people can hold their data back, but I'm not buying that intellectual product. I have no obligation to believe an advertisement for science. I like to check for myself.

On the practical side I think sharing code and data is better for the advancement of science than hiding it or refusing to release it.
I think that is objectively true.
Its good to see folks being more in line with those ideals. At AGU I was happy to see a bunch of people talking about the importance of open data. But they need more money. I'd gladly tax the rich to get them that money.

If folks want to know the roots of this, they can just consider one of my childhood heros Stewart Brand. Surely some of you are able to remember the whole earth catalog. For those too young to remember

Yup, Like some of you I was a early fan of a self sustainable life style. And the belief that information wants to be free.
ha, you didnt know I was a hippy at age 10. and later a cyberpunk.

There are other interesting ways Brand plays out in what I think; folks interested can look up copyleft hardware. With copyleft hardware we made all the information required to build the product open source, encouraging people to copy and exploit. The funny thing is that if anyone can copy your device, nobody does. They might,however, take it, improve it, and put you out of business. Which means you better focus on innovation rather than erecting barriers to protect monopolistic profits. Essentially we saw copyleft as one way small companies in BRIC could compete with giants.

ijish said...

Steven (Mosher), please spare us your hypocritical platitudes on 'openness' and 'rigour'.

If you're truly such a huge fan of openness, you'd clamour for TCM to reveal

(1) the exact contents of the second message from "FOIA" -- you know, the one which TCM replied to with "A lot is happening behind the scenes" -- and

(2) the IP address which the message came from, and

(3) what e-mail address "FOIA" was using in his comment submission.

Yes, I'm still curious about these 3 things.

* * *


"Frank, to your questions, no and no, obviously."

Then shouldn't we be helping Joe Romm and Van Jone in their efforts?

-- frank

ijish said...


Michael Tobis said...

Frank, there's a lot of room between "I think that's tantamount to genocide" and "I wholeheartedly support"!

I know enough about those two to be confident they aren't advocating genocide and happily attest to that. I also do not always agree with either one of them. I haven't followed either of the incidents you want me to take a position on. I'm really not sure what you are going on about.

There is a real tension is between solidarity and independent thought. But I don't think a clear enough agenda to deal with our troubles has yet emerged that we can do without much thinking.

ijish said...

MT, this is getting disingenuous. It seems you're trying to do science outreach by sealing in some sort of hermetic vacuum, merely because of some innate, irrational fear of being sucked into the vortex "solidarity" or "radicalism" or what-have-you.

The fact is, even as you sink deeper and deeper into self-congratulation over your self-imagined ingenuity in comparing Mosher to Assange (and to Richard Stallman), the rest of the climate action community has long moved past.

The only possible outcome of your little exercise in hermetic cogitation is that the real world becomes more and more irrelevant to you, and you become more and more irrelevant to the real world.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

First of all, I claim no ingenuity. I do claim to have listened to what Mosher says. If you listen to him and to Assange you hear the same memes. This is the voice of the data liberation crowd, and I used to have a lot of sympathy for it. It's only in seeing the disastrous outcome in the CRU hacking that I see that one shouldn't confuse absolute principles with a realistic prescription for real world actions.

One question is whether Mosher is who or what Mosher says he is. There's a recent exchange at Lucia's that puts the maniacal side in focus. I'll be coming back to that, though the back story is endless and tedious as conversations with the deniers and the deny-that-we-are-deniers tend to be.

Several people I trust have told me not to trust Mosher. That's gratuitous. Unless and until he admits that he has done great damage I hardly need the reminder that he is dangerous, whether his ethic is real or feigned.

But my work is to take a topic that most people find boring and try to make it interesting. Mosher's quandary does not bore me, partly because had history been shaped even a little differently I might have ended up in his shoes.

Now it's your turn to be interesting. You seem convinced I am doing something wrong, turning into another tiresome difference-splitter perhaps. Please elaborate.

I think you are in a two-camp world.

I can't negotiate this mess with less than ten camps, and even that seems inadequate. Note that I am a I-a and you are a I-d in my taxonomy. While we may share ultimate objectives, our intermediate goals and tactics are very different.

ijish said...


With all due respect, methinks the comparison of Mosher to Assange or Stallman is "interesting" only in your own mind. Appending the words 'I believe he means well' to every inactivist action is simply not interesting. It's not original. It's just tedious. And from what I see, pretty much nobody else finds this sort of thing interesting.

Questions which I do find interesting, and which don't fall into any sort of "solidarity" which you're so opposed to, are things like the following:

(1) To what extent can we reconstruct the methodology used by Briffa et al.'s paleotemperature work, from the material available in

(2) How can we, as occasional bloggers, grow our own investigative journalism movement, or at least lend support to budding investigative journalism efforts? How can we promote methodological rigour in such efforts?

There are lots of questions which, when answered, help produce new knowledge and improve our understanding of the world. Constantly chanting 'I believe he means well' at every turn is just tedious and creates no new knowledge.

I hope I've been interesting.

-- frank

Lazar said...

a thread and post dedicated to 'who is Steven Mosher'...
he must feel honored I'm sure...
but it is only SM who is putting data on the table
and it is only SM who is making a case
he is making claims which you can check folks... google is your friend
y'know trust is a tricky thing... being too trusting *can* be a dangerous thing... being too untrusting is cowardly and distasteful...
people fear his intelligence
but he is just a man folks
not a Deus ex Mosher
there is something in everyone to admire
if nothing else... I can admire his temperament among much provocation and that he is consistently interesting... if you consider him an enemy... be grateful that you have at least one enemy whom does not bore you to tears... and it is probably no more than one... be grateful for good enemies
people make mistakes... people evolve their views and interests... there needs to be some allowance

Lazar said...

google is your friend

Lazar said...

1,600+ results from google +steven +mosher +copyleft +hardware

ijish said...


I don't know about this copyleft hardware thang, but I do know that in the lore of the copyleft software community (as represented by Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, etc.), there's a person by the name of Eric Raymond (ESR) who used to contribute a bit to the community, but who is now focused on being a diehard libertarian. He was one of the people who came up with the term "open source".

Note that

(1) To the copyleft software community, he's now pretty much a laughingstock. The "open source" idea lives on, but the community has pretty much moved past him long ago.

(2) Nowadays one can talk about using "Linux" without having someone accuse him of being a communist.

I think there's a relation between these two.

-- frank

Sylvester said...

MT: First, I hope you enjoy the Texas weather in wintertime. A step up from Canada, eh? (I live in Houston).

A comment on your approval of the status quo. I think a good bit of knowledge can be provided by the universities (I presume you limit that to scientific knowledge) but private initiative is also valuable. I was a patent attorney for many years, and saw a lot of developments coming from industry. Because, of course, industry is where the rubber meets the road. When a practical problem is met, a practical solution is sought. And patented, sometime.

I recall a couple of examples. Fluidized catalysts made a lot of petroleum processes viable. I think Esso Research invented and patented fluidized catalytic cracking. The fluidized bed is now used widely for all kinds of reactions. A peculiar example is the old (really old) case of the paper-making machinery that tended to ball up the wet mess before it could be dried on the big heated rollers. Some wise person suggested that they raise the legs on the first Fourdriener (spelling?) machine just a bit so the product was conducted slightly downhill. Eureka! (I know this is not world class science, but it is interesting). Bell Labs was (is?) at the forefront of electromagnetic science. Again, to solve real problems. And, BTW, found the faint traces of t he Big Bang in the process. Now, that is science. Maybe they will find the hint of the multiverse next.

And I am surprised that you haven't expanded your vocabulary to include Texican swear words. Get out of the cloister and mingle with a few cowboys!

Yours for civility.

Jim Brock

Michael Tobis said...

Jim (sorry I called you Kim last time, typo) thanks for the comments.

I am an engineer first and a scientist second. (It actually seems likely that Mosher and I were in the same classrooms at almost the same time. We probably share some professors.)

I appreciate the competence of industry and bemoan the inefficiencies and hide-boundedness of the academy as much as anybody.

But there are questions that industry can't take on. The academy, for all its flaws, does produce science that nobody else can approach. Wrecking balls are not the solution to academia's problems.