"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Economists Trying to Control the Discourse

You would think the situation might call for a revisiting of conventional notions, a moment of introspection, an admission that perhaps past advice may have been not entirely of the finest caliber.

You might think so but, well, no.

David Leonhardt, in an unusually early preview of this week's New York Times Magazine:

But while Washington has been preoccupied with stimulus and bailouts, another, equally important issue has received far less attention — and the resolution of it is far more uncertain. What will happen once the paddles have been applied and the economy’s heart starts beating again? How should the new American economy be remade? Above all, how fast will it grow?

That last question may sound abstract, even technical, compared with the current crisis. Yet the consequences of a country’s growth rate are not abstract at all. Slow growth makes almost all problems worse. Fast growth helps solve them. As Paul Romer, an economist at Stanford University, has said, the choices that determine a country’s growth rate “dwarf all other economic-policy concerns.”
(Note, the links pasted through from the Times, which continues to have a completely idiotic policy to automatically link irrelevant articles, but that's a minor gripe compared to this one. Normally I just excise them but I'm too peeved at the moment to bother.)

I admit I haven't screwed up the courage to read beyond that point as yet. I'm sorry but it appears that I am too feebleminded to be able to understand the point on which the whole lengthy article expands.

Will someone, please, very slowly and patiently, explain to me what it is that is should be growing forever, how it is possible that it can do that (when all other growth processes in nature eventually terminate), and why we need it to do that? Please also explain why that should dwarf all other "economic-policy" concerns, like, say, sustaining a viable planet. I and the other seven billion of us would be most appreciative. Thanks in advance.

Update: Reading on:
For centuries, people have worried that economic growth had limits — that the only way for one group to prosper was at the expense of another. The pessimists, from Malthus and the Luddites and on, have been proved wrong again and again. Growth is not finite.
Which raises another request for assistance. Can someone provide such a "proof", please? Perhaps that word means something different to an economist.

The rest of the article is not too offensive though it seems a bit oblivious to, well, a lot of things. To be fair I did like this bit though:
He then told a story that John F. Kennedy liked to tell, about an early-20th-century French marshal named Hubert Lyautey. “The guy says to his gardener, ‘Could you plant a tree?’ ” Summers said. “The gardener says, ‘Come on, it’s going to take 50 years before you see anything out of that tree.’ The guy says, ‘It’s going to take 50 years? Really? Then plant it this morning.’ ”

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Global Temperature Graph

I am getting Google hits for people searching for "Global Temperature Graph", but they haven't been getting what they are searching for. Allow me to fix this.

Recent temperatures:

The instrumental record:

The historical period:

Want longer time periods? Want more info? Want other revealing graphics?

Go to the excellent website globalwarmingart.com , whence these figures are lifted and where they are explained in detail.

Science is Something that People Do

A delightful essay by Dennis Overbye appears in the NYTimes today. 
Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.
Highly recommended.

Monday, January 26, 2009

We Need a New form of Outreach

American Thinker has a particularly compelling and polished version of the usual vile garbage, put together in what starts to look like a coherent argument. Of course it is built on the usual foundation of overvalued nitpicking:
"We can't even believe in "official" measurements, as data sets relied upon to track global temperatures have again been shown to be contaminated and otherwise compromised."
"Remember the sea ice that doomsters warned would soon be gone? It's now at the very same level it was in 1979."
and outright lies:
"this IPCC report, much-hyped-and-hallowed by alarmists and media-drones alike, represents the combined work of only 52 carefully cherry-picked UN scientists"
Unfortunately, amidst all this garbage they score a legitimate political point here. The public's confidence in the scientific consensus as somewhat understated in the IPCC reports is, by various measures getting worse. That part of the article is not lies.

Although Obama is closely enough connected to the scientific community that he understands the tragic dynamic behind this situation, and although he has a lot of power, he is probably not going to make much of a dent in this situation anytime soon. Yes, green jobs will help, and it does help that people see peak oil as real. The alliance between fossil fuel (especially coal) people and an especially malicious and divisive streak among market fundamentalists goes on. They are not going to make our lives any easier, and so the sort of unmitigated nastiness seen in the American Thinker article is not going away or even abating. Worse, as it triumphantly crows, it is succeeding.

We need to reinvent the relationship between science and the public. That is an absolutely crucial step and it needs to happen fast. This is outside the capacity of NSF, which likes to support what it calls outreach but does so in a structurally ineffective way.

New mechanisms for communication between science and the public are desperately needed.

Dr. Chu? Dr. Holdren? Hello?

Update: Churlish of me to complain on a day when Obama takes such strong positive steps. For which I am grateful; I wasn't aware this was coming.

And what do you expect of a country where people don't "believe in" evolution anyway? Still I hate to see these polls headed south and I think it's an important long-term goal to reconnect (or at least connect) science and society.

Update 1/28: Some related points on a comment by Gavin Starks on Tim O'Reilly's "Radar" site:

We're all aware of the emotive language used to polarize the climate change debate.

There are, however, deeper patterns which are repeated across science as it interfaces with politics and media. These patterns have always bothered me, but they've never been as "important" as now.

We are entering an new era of seismic change in policy, business, society, technology, finance and our environment, on a scale and speed substantially greater than previous revolutions. The sheer complexity of these interweaving systems is staggering.

Much of this change is being driven by "climate science", and in the communications maelstrom there is a real risk that we further alienate "science" across the board.

We need more scientists with good media training (and presenting capability) to change the way that all sciences are represented and perceived. We need more journalists with deeper science training - and the time and space to actually communicate across all media. We need to present uncertainty clearly, confidently and in a way that doesn't impede our decision-making.

On the climate issue, there are some impossible levers to contend with;

  1. Introducing any doubt into the climate debate stops any action that might combat our human impact.
  2. Introducing "certainty" undermines our scientific method and its philosophy.

When represented in political, public and media spaces, these two levers undermine every scientific debate and lead to bad decisions.

A tough nut, indeed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Lawnmower Problem

OK, never mind, for the moment, if lawns are a good idea. Let's consider lawnmowers.

If you have a typical American house, you have a typical lawn in front of it, a lawn that is in need of occasional trimming. Unless you contract out for lawn services, you almost certainly own a lawnmower too. Most likely it has a cheesy, loud, polluting little engine.

You only use this for an hour every other week, or 1/336 of the time. OK, you don't want people mowing lawns at night, so say 1/168 of the available daylight time. So you and your 167 nearest neighbors own 168 times too many lawnmowers. If you could coordinate your lawnmowing, you would need to spend 1/168 as much on a lawnmower. Similar calculations apply to every other household tool you own that you don't use intensively in your work or your principal hobbies.

OK, it's a slight exaggeration for various reasons, but there is no reason 50 people couldn't share a really good lawnmower except for logistics. Less intensive tool sharing is already happening informally in more civilized neighborhoods on local mailing lists. ("Has anybody got one of those really tall pruning shears?") Sure enough, people are trying to build web tools to facilitate more effective sharing. ( H/T @timoreilly )

Though it strikes me as possibly overkill, and that perhaps a local mailing list would be more fun, this sort of thing may move the process of substituting relationship for stuff forward.

Now consider that this would reduce the demand for lawnmowers by 98% over the long term, and create a vast oversupply in the short run.

This is part of the trend to substitution of information for materials. Knowing where to borrow a lawnmower is actually better than owning a lawnmower: it saves you some storage. Substituting information for materials decreases impact on the environment; the impact from the manufacture of 49 lawnmowers in this case.

It will also greatly reduce employment in the manufacture of nasty little two- four-stroke engines. According to almost all economists and almost all politicians, this is a bad thing. Obama has as his first priority re-employing all the people who until recently were diligently employed creating, servicing and financing a huge housing glut. The public agrees. They are wrong.

Economists would argue in theory that if a web site or more reliance on mailing lists or even old fashioned community "bulletin boards" (corkboards and thumbtacks) can replace 98% of lawnmowers with a few pennies worth of information exchange, this amounts to creating value.

But it's value that's very hard to capture: the people putting up the web site will invest a few hundred hours of effort but not much else, and will probably get by on advertising revenues. The vast bulk of the return goes to the people who don't have to get new lawnmowers. So in practice, wealth is moved from the money economy back to the informal economy.

GDP goes down. Employment goes down. Collective well-being goes up a little bit but individual well-being of people who make and market little two-^H^H^H^H four-stroke engines goes down. Crisis is declared.

Yet this is exactly the opposite of the behavior that got us into trouble in the first place: the replacement of community with commerce. Isn't this the sort of "decline" we should be encouraging?

Of course it is no pleasure to lose your main income stream, especially when your savings are crumbling too. The response to this shouldn't be to "revive" the economy, especially the manufacturing sector which has obviously overproduced. The response should be to make it less of threat to be unemployed: public health care, decent housing and food standards provided for everybody. Losing income should not be an existential threat. Calm, underemployed people can be a huge source for creativity and restoration of the social fabric. Desperate underfed people can't.

The answer to past overproduction can't be to bring back the good old days of overproduction.

Don't work too hard to keep your job. Apply your extra efforts to find out how you can contribute to the informal economy.

Don't replace your lawnmower. Meet your neighbors.

Relaxation is progress. Take advantage of the Great Unwinding, and unwind.

Via @timoreilly, here's a discussion of the very topic at hand.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Not about religion

Back when Irene's Mom used to live in Mississippi and we were in Wisconsin, we'd find ourselves driving through the deep south on occasion. A couple of times I heard some pretty extravagantly strange preachers on the radio. One I'll always remember said something like
"We have nothing against freedom of religion. Everybody should be free to believe whatever they want, and no religion should get special treatment. But when it comes to the Bible, we aren't talking about religion. The Bible is the revealed truth of God."
Based on that, I find it easier to understand evolution denialists than climate change denialists. As far as I know, the Bible makes no specific claims about the radiative or thermodynamic properties of atmospheric trace gases. A pity.

If you find yourself in a position where it is very rewarding to take the Bible literally, though, an unreasonable model of the earth prehistory is pretty much explicitly  included. Once you "believe in" that, it is necessarily the case that great swaths of earth science and biological science are wrong. You are very much seeking the charlatan who will tell you in vaguely realistic terms how and why the science is wrong. It turns out the world has a sufficient supply of shameless and complaint and/or self-delusional PhD's to provide cover for you if you want to "believe in" science and "believe in" the Bible at the same time.

Having achieved that, you will perceive any person advocating evolution as at best mistaken, but likely evil and probably to be damned to hell. This will be reinforced by their arrogant refusal to consider alternatives to their dire mistake in the classroom and in public discourse.

I see this as all about the dichotomy between how things are decided in science vs how they are decided in politics. In science, not every voice carries equal weight. This makes some people uncomfortable as it seems to go against the tenets of democracy. I think the best answer is Daniel Moynihan's: "You are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts." 

Anyway, given the many similarities in tactics, including what seems to us a willful refusal to debate honestly, it's worth it for us in the climate trenches to pay close attention to the evolution nonsense. One thing that all this makes clear is that there really is a quasi-religious, dogmatic belief that it is impossible that restraint on any human economic activity can be a good idea. This belief is, in some circles, as beyond challenge as the Bible is to a fundamentalist. 

It must be; this can account for their approach to evidence and I don't believe anything else could. A small number of them must be lying through their teeth (as must some of those testifying against evolution). The number of consciously bad actors may be very small, though.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Live tweeting from Texas Education Board

Following StatesmanEDU on Twitter.

Also, Texas Freedom Network is liveblogging.
11:44 - A creationist testifier:
“Why are we supporting such a theory (evolution) that has no evidence supporting it?”
Also liveblogging the event is TFK (Joshua Rosenau).

Update: Today's Statesman story

Update 1/22: Here's the other side, an outfit called the Free Market Foundation.

If the Shafersman quote (which I've cringed at before, repeated by the FMF at the above link) wasn't messed up by the Statesman reporter, he's not a very competent ally. People who don't understand science defending science can be an embarrassment and a liability.

Also, here's some bland TV coverage (may expire; let me know if you find a stale link.)

More: The NYTimes has a good summary of the story.

And today's Statesman story, despite a couple of glitches (\u2026 is actually Python's rendition for the ellipsis ("...") character; hooray for the Statesman running buggy Python) unscrambles a fairly convoluted day pretty well:
The State Board of Education on Thursday rejected efforts to continue to require Texas children to study the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories including evolution. But a narrower challenge to evolutionary theory was approved.
However, the board later approved, 9-6, a motion by board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, to require students to evaluate the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of scientific theories about common ancestry of different species. The prevalent scientific theory explaining the diversity of species is evolution; creationism is the belief that the universe was created by a higher power.
Details from TFN:
4:23 - McLeroy wants to amend the section on biology dealing with evolution, calling into question common descent through evolution. This is a very bad amendment. Good heavens. McLeroy is a dentist, and he’s trying to argue against the heart of evolution right here. He has absolutely no qualifications here.

4:32 - We’re reeling here. McLeroy has launched a broadside against a core concept of evolution — common descent. This is like an army losing a battle (”strengths and weaknesses”) and then launching a nuclear strike.

4:45 - Good God. It passed. Board members surely don’t understand what they’ve done here. Certainly not all of them. Strengths and weaknesses is out, but McLeroy has succeeded in using the standards to raise doubts about a core concept of biology.

4:48 - The board has voted 9-6 to give preliminary approval to the standards. UPDATE: In the confusion at the end, we missed the final vote count. But the board did give preliminary approval to the standards draft.

5:04 - Time for deep breaths. One: The failure of creationists to reinsert “strengths and weaknesses” into the standards is a huge victory for sound science education. We need to fight to keep it out in tomorrow’s formal vote and again in the final March votes on the standards.

Second: Board members — none of whom are research scientists, much less biologists — appeared confused when they were asked to consider amendments with changes to specific passages of the standards. That’s why it’s foolish to let dentists and insurance salesmen play-pretend that they’re scientists. The result is that the standards draft includes language that is more tentative. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous overall.

Third, and this is more of a problem, McLeroy has succeeded in inserting language that has students waste time evaluating evidence on a concept that is established science — in fact, it’s a core concept in the study of evolution, common descent. What we saw is what happens when a dentist pretends that he knows more about science than scientists.
This is all mighty confusing. The press coverage struggling to establish who the players are and what is at stake in this or that amendment. It's a difficult task. (It's a quadruple negative. The science advisory group proposed to 1) strike the pre-existing text calling for the curriculum to investigate  2) "weaknesses" in evolutionary theory; the creationists proposed to 3) amend the recommendation so as to reinstate the language and 4) the majority defeated the amendment to that effect. Then the creationists came up with another way to get creationism into the curriculum which the exhausted moderates let slide, apparently out of inattention or something.

In the end, both TFN and the Statesman are calling it a victory for evolution, but a defeat for "common descent" is a neat trick that seems to achieve the fundies' purpose in a completely different way. I don't really like the sneering at the end of the TFN timeline but the declaration of partial victory is nonsense. They are hosed, and the schoolchildren of half the country may be hosed along with them.

FMF is a day behind. Playing close to the vest, perhaps? I call it a stealth victory for fundamentalist  superstition, myself.

The latest article on tfk has interesting points and comments.

how do they propose that anyone analyze and evaluate how natural selection doesn't apply to individuals but to populations? That's simply true, and doesn't require any analysis or evaluation.
Tony Whitson:
it seems to me that McLeroy's amendment on common descent is so silly that the Board won't have any problem getting rid of that in March.
Cheryl Shepherd-Adams:
So why would they vote with McLeroy and against the experts on matters of science content?
John Pieret:
I'm sure there is an element of face-saving in the reaction of the Disco Boyz, especially after they've spent so much time promoting the "strengths and weakness" ploy, but I'm not at all sure these amendments are small potatos.
Update 1/24: More resources in Millard fillmore's Bathtub (indeed). The Houston Chronicle's coverage is here.

Update 1/25: Dave Mann at the Texas Observer sees it pretty much the way I do.


Monday, January 19, 2009

The third most important, version 87

I saw the following in comments on Steinn SigurĂ°sson's blog in his article on the new sunspot minimum:
Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate well with global warming or cooling either; in fact, CO2 in the atmosphere trails warming which is clear natural evidence for its well-studied inverse solubility in water: CO2 dissolves in cold water and bubbles out of warm water. The equilibrium in seawater is very high, making seawater a great 'sink'; CO2 is 34 times more soluble in water than air is soluble in water.
This seemed oddly familiar. There really is no sensible way to make methane more important than CO2, so it stuck with me. I could swear I had just recently replied to someone making the same mistake.

Specifically, there are 87 occurrences of "most important green house gas followed by methane", an odd rendition (owing to the two words in 'green house' as well as the indefensible position.) Here are the first five:
The Warming Earth Blows Hot, Cold And Chaotic - Care2 News Network
Jan 2, 2009 ... Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not ...
www.care2.com/news/member/510010530/1004181 - 106k - Cached - Similar pages -
Way of the Woo: The Pandemic vs. The Maunder Minimum
Dec 22, 2008 ... Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not ...
wayofthewoo.blogspot.com/2008/12/pandemic-vs-maunder-minimum.html - 86k - Cached - Similar pages -
Sunspots? | Clipmarks
Jan 1, 2009 ... Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not ...
clipmarks.com/clipmark/6E413CB1-C680-4FE8-BCB6-73C24995526B/ - 36k - Cached - Similar pages -
insciences.org - Sunspot data vital clue to climate change
Dec 22, 2008 ... Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not ...
insciences.org/article.php?article_id=981 - 27k - Cached - Similar pages -
China Encourages Innovation by Awarding Top Scientists - Two ...
Jan 12, 2009 ... Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate ...
news.softpedia.com/news/China-Encourages-Innovation-by-Awarding-Top-Scientists-101765.shtml - 48k - Cached - Similar pages -
and for completeness, the last five:
Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate well with ...
antigreen.blogspot.com/2008/12/worst-climate-predictions-of-2008-2008.html - 91k - Cached - Similar pages -
Something about everything: Doomsday-the end of the world on Dec ...
Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate well with ...
survival-of-d-fittest.blogspot.com/2008/12/doomsday.html - 75k - Cached - Similar pages -
Western Civilization and Culture: Documenting the global warming fraud
Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate well with ...
westerncivilizationandculture.blogspot.com/2008/12/documenting-global-warming-fraud.html - 170k - Cached - Similar pages -
Blame the Sun for a Cloudy Day? - All Scientific
Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate well with ...
allscientific.blogspot.com/2008/12/blame-sun-for-cloudy-day.html?showComment=1229868960000 - 104k - Cached - Similar pages -
weather conditions
Water vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane. The third most important greenhouse gas is CO2, and it does not correlate well with ...
ocracoke-island.net/search/more.php?id=20090102022841AAWDw5X&search=weather+c... - 13k - Cached - Similar pages -
Now the idea that someone would post the exact same (incorrect) words on the web 87 times strikes me as odd. Presumably this is a paid agent provocateur. Does this pattern come up elsewhere? Or is someone cutting corners on his work?

But I could swear I had responded to it recently, so I looked again. Sure enough, here it is:
Water vapour (0.4% overall but 1 – 4 % near the surface) is the most effective green house gas followed by methane (0.0001745%). The third ranking greenhouse gas is CO2 (0.0383%), and it does not correlate well with global warming or cooling either;
So here is a slightly different version. And there are some other variants like "third important" vs "third most important". And a mispaste "WateWater vapour is the most important green house gas followed by methane."

A couple of sites are so lucky as to get it twice!

Many are anonymous or signed by "Francis" or Francis M" but some get a full name: Francis Manns, sometimes with a PhD claimed.

So the first Google hit on "Francis Manns" will be a bio or a research page? Well, sort of. And, I see he is not new at this technique.

I hope he is getting paid for all this tedious effort since he apparently needs the money.

More Resources re Texas State Board of Ed

See Texas Citizens for Science.

Some of the site is pretty stale but there is useful info linked from the front page.

There is also the 21st Century Science Coalition. If any Texas-based scientists happen across this article, there is a petition you might want to be aware of on that latter site.


Idiocracy marches on

The New York Times reports on a genial, diligent MD who is afraid to go on a book tour:

“I’ll speak at a conference, say, to nurses,” he said. “But I wouldn’t go into a bookstore and sign books. It can get nasty. There are parents who really believe that vaccines hurt their children, and to them, I’m incredibly evil. They hate me.”

Dr. Offit, a pediatrician, is a mild, funny and somewhat rumpled 57-year-old. The chief of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, he is also the co-inventor of a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that kills 600,000 children a year in poor countries.

“When Jonas Salk invented polio vaccine, he was a hero — and I’m a terrorist?” he jokes, referring to a placard denouncing him at a recent demonstration by antivaccine activists outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Of course, he is accused of being in it for the gold.

Should we care? Of course we should. Is this our fight? Of course it is.

Notice this part especially:
“Opponents of vaccines have taken the autism story hostage,” Dr. Offit said. “They don’t speak for all parents of autistic kids, they use fringe scientists and celebrities, they’ve set up cottage industries of false hope, and they’re hurting kids. Parents pay out of their pockets for dangerous treatments, they take out second mortgages to buy hyperbaric oxygen chambers. It’s just unconscionable.”
[Dr. Nancy J. Minshew] blamed journalists for “creating a conspiracy where there was none.” By acting as if there were two legitimate sides to the autism debate, she said, “the media has fed on this — it’s great for ratings.”
Arthur Allen, the author of “Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver” (W. W. Norton, 2007), has publicly debated other journalists who argue that vaccines cause autism. Six years ago, he wrote a seminal article in The New York Times Magazine titled “The Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory.” He later changed his mind and now “feels bad” about the article, he said, “because it helped get these people into the field who did a lot of damage.”

Dr. Offit’s book “needed to be written,” he said. But he is skeptical that it will end the struggle.

“There are still people who believe fluoride is dangerous, who think jet contrails cause cancer,” he said. “I’m waiting for the debate to get beyond that, but you’re not going to convert some people.”
It's not left vs right; it's fantasy vs. evidence. Science actually resolves questions, but society seems to be losing its capacity to benefit from that. (I think it was actually better at it in the post WWII decades. This seems to be affecting all the English speaking countries; I can't speak for the rest of the world.)

Engineering can provide great products, and people can tell. So we get really good razors and shave creams, for instance. Amazing stuff. But when science offers advice, the body politic can't tell the real thing from the malicious nonsense. Confused people follow charlatans as if they were wise and treat real experts as if they were charlatans. The consequence for the charlatans may be comfortable, but for the rest of us the whole situation can be tragic.

By the way, Idiocracy is a very stupid movie. But is a very smart movie, too.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Arrogance of Anthropogenic Impact Theories

Many denialist groups, particularly those of religious persuasion, talk about the "arrogance" of believing that human impact is of a scale to affect the atmosphere. I leave the profile of the atmosphere up at the top right of this blog to emphasize that the atmosphere is really a thin film, and that it might well be within our capacities to alter it. This attitude may be more prominent in remote rural areas where the scope of human impact is less obvious on a daily basis.

Perhaps the visual impact of human impact on the land surface may cause people to reconsider their intuitions in this regard. Here for instance is a picture of some protected lands in Tunisia. Sidi Toui National Park is about 7 km wide, and lies surrounded by unprotected lands that have been destroyed by overgrazing.

Lifted from an amazing gallery at boston.com .

Then of course, there is Lake Chad, before and after:

And the Aral sea:

I referred to these massive anthropogenic changes briefly before, with a couple of interesting links.

I'm reminded of it in trolling the denialist sludge my RSS feeds pick up. The question is which way is the arrogant one. Is the presumption that we are "as gods", and capable of changing the surface and near-surface of a planet sacrilegious? (Note: surprisingly, that is the correct spelling, apparently.) Perhaps the refusal to look at plain evidence because of some pre-existing dogma is even more arrogant?

This arrogance is an ancient story, of course. You'd think folks might have learned something by now.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Theory of Everything

You might have thought our problems originated at least to some extent in the fact that the USA had been run by a tribe of drunken lemurs for eight years, but you would be wrong. No, the cause of our problems, all of them, the wars, the economic collapse, the budgetary problems, the international hostility, the decline of civility, the prosecution of innocent people for political purposes, disease, depression, beach erosion, mercury pollution, the lack of due recognition of the Longhorns as the #1 college football team this year, in fact everything that troubles us, all of it, is entirely due to the IPCC and their vile coterie of nefarious co-conspirators:
The establishment of the Church of Global Warming immediately attracted as acolytes those leftists orphaned by the collapse of the old Soviet Union, those who saw, and continue to see, free-market capitalism and individual liberty as grave threats. So convincing were they developing plausible pseudo-science and both faulty and falsified data that they were able to bring into the church those political leaders — read United Nations — who have long sought the destruction of the one bulwark standing against the encroaching tide of totalitarianism.

The success of Gore’s evangelical fervor can be seen in the apparent commitment of President-elect Barack Hussein Obama to some sort of cap-and-trade program, a program designed by Gore to create a personally lucrative market for a product that will be created by legislative fiat. The legislative fiats already in place, spurred by Gore and his followers, have played a major role in helping to bankrupt the American automobile industry, have driven up the cost of food, have hamstrung domestic energy exploration and production, and are threatening to destroy, through onerous taxation, the American livestock industry.

Even the livestock industry! So says Dan Sernoffsky in the website of the Lebanon Daily News of Lebanon, PA. Fortunately, we can always count on the Russians in time of need:
Despite its best efforts to brand as heretics those who would question the basic tenets of the church — that global warming is man-made, that it is immediately imminent, and that the only salvation lies in the church — there is increasing evidence that those tenets are, and always have been, wrong. A man named Khabibullo Abdusamatov, who heads a space-research laboratory in Russia, has suggested that the world is headed for global cooling, a hypothesis seconded by one of his countrymen, Dr. Oleg Sorokhtin, another respected scientist.
God bless Khabibullo Abdisamatov and Oleg Sorokhtin, saviors of the livestock industry!

This is the best bit, here:
Not unsurprisingly, the Church of Global Warming has been quick to claim that the drop in temperatures is simply proof of the basic tenet of their faith, that man-made global warming does exist, hoping, no doubt, that what they have perceived and read about sunspot cycles will enable them to ignore temperature drops when sunspot activity increases and leads to rising temperatures.
Ah, the selective use of evidence. Nobody should tolerate selective use of evidence. Look, here are two obscure Russian fellows who agree that this is all based on selective evidence! Case closed!

You can't make this stuff up. Anyway, at least I can't. But anyway I can share. You're welcome.

End Run around Board of Education?

Texas Freedom Network has a blog, which is reporting that the state legislature is not necessarily going to let the Texas State Board of Education have its way with the science curriculum:

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, has just filed legislation that would strip the Texas State Board of Education of all authority assigned to it by statute. Among the board’s powers that would go away: setting curriculum standards and adopting textbooks. That authority would be transferred to the Texas Education Agency.

The only authority the board would keep under Senate Bill 440 is power granted under the state Constitution, primarily managing the Permanent School Fund. Removing that authority and eliminating the board altogether would require passage of a constitutional amendment, followed by approval from Texas voters.

We noted last month that state lawmakers had begun looking at ways to rein in the deeply politicized board. We wouldn’t be surprised to see additional legislation targeting the board.

More here.

Not sure how much to rely on TFN's spin, but I sure hope this is more or less right. Hard as it may be for the rest of the world to believe based on our last eight years being governed at the federal level by rabid mole rats, there are certain traces of pragmatism among some parts of the Texas Republican party, and their numerical control of the legislature is slender.

Update: While in this article I refer to the departing federal administration as being constituted of rabid mole rats, in the other article I posted today I refer to them as drunken lemurs. I have been called to account for this discrepancy. I must say it is a good question. Most likely, it is a coalition of some kind between the two groups, which clearly have largely coinciding interests.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Sherlock Holmes Story Discovered

Quite an interesting one, to say the least:

Holmes: Inspector Lestrade, I hear you have arrested Mr Algore .

Lestrade: Indeed I have Holmes. Once again the Yard brings the miscreants to justice, thank you very much; and without your … ‘assistance’, I might add.

Holmes: Quite so, quite so. May I enquire as to the nature of the evidence?


Lestrade: Very well. It seems your Mr Algore has been defrauding the widows and orphans of London with some sort of lantern show which he calls ‘Discomforting Verities’ or some such nonsense.

He was convincing people that the weather would change because of vapours from the coal mines. Ha ha, imagine the thought of London’s air being bad from coal! The things some people conceive. No doubt he is an opium addict on top of it all.

Holmes: Quite so, quite so, pray do go on.

Lestrade: Yes well, he would do his lantern show and then he was selling people carbon bathing machines, bonnets, caps, and offsets, whatever the Devil those are. Some sort of undergarment I suppose. ...

More at Greenfyre's. Nicely done indeed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Bray of Fundies

Yesterday, I mentioned this in passing, in discussing the impending trainwreck at the Texas State Board of Education:
"It is interesting that while they don't actually accept science, they think they do. There's no expression of contempt for science, just some sort of implication that it is rife with anti-Christian conspiracies. Strange."
Some further thoughts following up from that:

When it comes down to it, they care whether a statement is consistent with their dogma, or neutral with regard to dogma, or antithetical to dogma. In their view anything in the last category is obviously a consequence of some sort of Dr. Evil Conspiracy. Accordingly no sort of scientific propriety informs their assault on the idea, which they take to be literally diabolical. They seem to mean well because they do mean well. They even want to save us poor sinners from our sins. This makes them all the more dangerous because they seem warm and reliable and familiar to their cohort.

They simply don't understand how humans arrive at truth. How could they? They are fundamentalists after all. "It's all wrote down in this hyuh book, son."

They don't play fair, but not because they are unfair. Rather it's because they have no concept of logical coherence. It's not that they don't want to play by the rules. They can't play by the rules we recognize because those rules are beyond them. Parliamentary, legal, political rules and stratgies are accessible to them. Pursuit of truth among messy evidence isn't and can't be. We allow them to pretend to play our game at our peril, and ultimately at theirs as well.

When we are at cross purposes with them, we should not be confused about the nature of the game we are playing. The truth eventually will out, I suppose, but sometimes it may not out in time.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Carrying the Reminders of Every Glove that Laid Him Down

Lie la lie...

Quoth Ezra Klein, in discussing Bartels and Achens, echoing Dunning-Kruger:
The more an individual voter knew, the more they self-deceived. "Among the least well-informed respondents, neither objective reality nor partisan bias seems to have provided much structure to perceptions of the budget deficit," they dryly note. "Uninformed Republicans and Democrats were slightly, and about equally, more likely to say that the deficit had increased than that it had decreased." But travel up the information scale, and the situation dims. Partisan bias exerts its pull. Objective reality does not.
I think that understates the case. People who are especially interested in X, or Y, or AGW or what have you, will seek out confirming information and reject nonconfirming information. In a sense they are "more informed" but they are not "better informed". But it isn't partisan bias exercising pull; it's prejudice exercising push filtering out inconvenient information. (H/T Dano)

Also H/T Geryon, whom I gave a hard time recently but who really aren't all bad.

This reinforces the point I started this blog with. Most people don't have the habits of mind of scientists, and even those that do are fallible and need to hang out with other scientists to really filter effectively. We don't have the scale to do that, so how do we go about convincing people to get things right?

The first top-of-page quote on "In It" was from myself, and "Logical Science" has kindly captured it, along with more respectable opinions far and wide.

Here is what I said. Let me say it again:

It's easy to refute all the contrarian arguments but that seems to have very little effect on how commonly they are believed. Refuted arguments seem to live on in the public imagination. To bring the public on board to a rational discussion of climate policy needs more than logical argument.

So what should we actually do

Any useful advice on this matter would be deeply appreciated.

Texas State Board of Education Hearings

Here is a press release from the creationists:
AUSTIN, Texas, Jan. 13 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has scheduled a hearing of scientific experts, including three scientists who are recommending that students should learn about scientific evidence that challenges Darwin's theory of evolution.

On Wednesday, January 21st, six experts selected by the SBOE to review a proposed update of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for science will give testimony to the board. Three of the scientists will recommend that the board retain long-standing language in the TEKS calling on students to examine the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories in order to strengthen students' critical thinking skills. The other experts are on record supporting repeal of the language.

"We're very pleased that in this Darwin bicentennial year Texas has invited scientists on both sides of the evolution debate to testify about the scientific status of Darwin's theory," said Dr. John West, associate director of Discovery Institute's Center for Science & Culture.

According to one of the experts, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, examining the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories is a core part of the scientific process, and abandoning such critical analysis merely to satisfy ideological demands of Darwinists harms students by giving them a false view of scientific inquiry.

"Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates," emphasized Dr. Meyer in his written report. Meyer, a Cambridge-trained philosopher of science, directs the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute.

Meyer will be joined in recommending the preservation of the "strengths and weaknesses" language in the TEKS by Baylor University chemistry professor Dr. Charles Garner and University of Wisconsin-Superior biology professor Ralph W. Seelke, whose laboratory research investigates the ability of natural selection to produce new functions in bacteria.

Previously, these scientists have advised the SBOE that good science education should encourage students to learn the scientific facts and engage in more critical thinking than they would under the currently proposed TEKS.

SOURCE Discovery Institute

Meanwhile, this showed up in my mail. It's not just the biologists under attack, alas:
From: Christina Castillo Comer
Date: January 12, 2009 1:24:44 PM CST

Subject: Call to Action

Dear fellow science educators,

It is time for a call to action. As you know, the new Earth and Space Science course standards (and all other science course standards) will be up for approval before the State Board of Education during January 21-23.

It is very likely that some of the SBOE members--the seven who are Young Earth Creationists--will attempt to make changes to the ESS standards in ways that will damage the scientific integrity and accuracy of the course. In particular, these SBOE members will try to negatively modify or delete the standards that require students to understand the following scientific topics they consider controversial:
  • age of the Earth and universe,
  • the Big Bang model of cosmology,
  • radiometric dating,
  • evolution of fossil life,
  • fossil lineages and transitional fossils,
  • origin of life by abiotic chemical processes,
  • ancient mass extinction events, and
  • global warming and climate change.

We need you and all your friends and family members to write letters to the individual SBOE members and ask them to adopt the new ESS standards without change!

That's the simple message of your letter: to accept the proposed ESS standards without editing or modification. We strongly suspect an effort will be made to do exactly that by members of the SBOE.

A group of ten individual Earth scientists that included high school teachers, ES teacher trainers, college professors, and industry geoscientists worked together for a year during several intense meetings to create these standards. Their very careful effort and hard work should not be injured by the actions of nonscientists who have ideological and political agendas. Under the Texas Constitution, the SBOE members are politically-elected officials who actually have the power to write whatever science standards they wish, and several have expressed their intention to modify certain standards to align with their religious and ideological agendas.

In addition to writing your individual letters (the same letter to each member is OK) asking that the ESS standards--indeed, all the science standards--not be modified in unscientific ways against the intentions of the scientists and science teachers who wrote them. Please write to colleagues on email lists in which you participate and ask them to do the same. We need a tremendous outpouring of support to counter the probable equal outpouring of support from critics of science among the citizens of Texas. Feel free to use this message.

I attach a PDF copy of the new ESS standards with this message. It is part
of a larger document containing all of the proposed and recommended high
school science standards that can be found on the Texas Education Agency
website at
http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/teks/Sci_TEKS_9-12_Clean_010509.pdf .

The addresses of the individual SBOE members can be found at
http://ritter.tea.state.tx.us/sboe/members.html . You can also email them
individually using a group email address, sboesupport@tea.state.tx.us,
although I think formal letters would be better received and more likely
read by them.

The letters need to be written and sent in the next few days. If you have never written a letter before, now is the time to do so. You should include in your letter:

Please adopt the ESS standards as written without modifications or
unscientific changes that weaken the standards." You can add the other reasons as you wish: our state's economy depends on a scientific understanding of the Earth, citizens need to understand Earth science as well as physical and life science, the Earth sciences affect our lives in so many ways, etc.

We need our ESS course to have an accurate and reliable scientific content,
not damaged by eliminating or weakening important topics that some people
object to for non-scientific reasons.

Chris Castillo Comer
Of course, the trouble is the impedance mismatch between the law and the science.

You can make a case that "Science education that does not encourage students to evaluate competing scientific arguments is not teaching students about the way science actually operates," emphasized Dr. Meyer in his written report. Of course, it's well known that useful science education does not operate the way science operates. And science does not operate the way law operates, either. There's no process besides abandonment for identifying discredited theories. There's no official Board of Hooey that says "c'mon, give me a break, phlogiston?"

So in the eyes of the law, it is hard to distinguish between things that experts actually think about and centuries-old campfire ghost stories originally intended to keep children from wandering out of their tents.

And of course, the fundamentalists are interested in law and politics. It is interesting that while they don't actually accept science, they think they do. There's no expression of contempt for science, just some sort of implication that it is rife with anti-Christian conspiracies. Strange.

As always, see also the Texas Freedom Network.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Reads About Science?

There are about a dozen RSS feeds out of the New York Times. Science is, by a factor of more than two, the least popular of them. This would be less discouraging perhaps if it weren't for the fact that the Times has the best newspaper science reporting in North America by far.

Or maybe science readers just don't understand the internet? That would be discouraging too.

Meanwhile back at the ranch

The disastrous trend that got me started blogging is not abating. According to Craig Miller's Climate Watch blog at KQED
Across much of the country (California being a notable exception), recent public polling would seem to indicate an eroding public acceptance of climate science, increasingly divided along party lines. A survey by the Pew Research Center last spring found that 71% of those surveyed accepted the basic premise of climate change but less than half believed it was related to human activity ("Republicans are increasingly skeptical," noted Pew).

The link also fully quotes an especially plausible version of the denialist talking points, well-seasoned with half-truths and distortions and outright Oregon petitions.

We should not fool ourselves. The battle of ideas is being won by the side of untruth, or at best fought to a draw (which is a victory on points for the side of untruth). This is a huge problem not just for the present carbon crisis, but for future crises as well.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Taking Action Under Complexity and Uncertainty

Jamais Cascio meanders a bit, but here is another interesting person and interesting group thinking about the big picture clearly.

This is where I come back to this notion of unintended consequences—uncertainty. Everything that we need to do when looking at global catastrophic risks has to come back to developing a capacity to respond effectively to global complex uncertainty. That’s not an easy thing. I’m not standing up here and saying all we need is to get a grant request going and we’ll be fine.

This may end up being, contrary to what George was saying about the catastrophes being the focus—it’s the uncertainty that may end up being the defining focus of politics in the 21st century. I wrote recently on the difference between long-run and long-lag. We are kind of used to thinking about long-run problems: we know this thing is going to hit us in fifty years, and we’ll wait a bit because we will have developed better systems by the time it hits. We are not so good at thinking about long-lag systems: it’s going to hit us in fifty years, but the cause and proximate sources are actually right now, and if we don’t make a change right now, that fifty years out is going to hit us regardless.

Climate is kind of the big example of that. Things like ocean thermal inertia, carbon commitment, all of these kinds of fiddly forces that make it so that the big impacts of climate change may not hit us for another thirty years, but we’d damn well better do something now because we can’t wait thirty years. There is actually with ocean thermal inertia two decades of warming guaranteed, no matter what we do. We could stop putting out any carbon right this very second and we would still have two more decades of warming, probably another good degree to degree and a half centigrade.

That’s scary, because we are already close to a tipping point. We’re not really good at thinking about long-lag problems. We are not really good at thinking about some of these complex systems, so we need to develop better institutions for doing that. That institution may be narrow—the transnational coordinating institutions focusing on asteroids or geoengineering. This may end up being a good initial step, the training wheels, for the bigger picture transnational cooperation.

Transcript here. Video there. How do you get invited to meetings like this?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

How to tell different stories with the same numbers

Here is a figure from Reuters about US employment numbers. The worst is over, huh?

Here is a figure from the New York Times showing essentially the same data. Hmmm. Notice how the longer time scale, and the expression of the total rather than the month-over-month change, changes the picture substantially and gives a much clearer picture of what is going on.

One of Edward Tufte's main points is that the way you display data affects the lesson people take from the data; that aligning the facts with human psychology such that people extract the real picture is a deep skill. 

Of course, in the case of our friends who are arguing that global warming has stopped, you could equally argue that deliberately misaligning the facts with human psychology is also a deep skill.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Tim O'Reilly Gets It

Publisher and open source advocate Tim O'Reilly gets it:
Since Bernie Madoff has put Ponzi schemes back onto the front pages, it's worth considering whether we are all complicit in the biggest Ponzi scheme of them all, the idea that the global economy can grow indefinitely.
I grew up on the idea that humanity would grow out into space, and that resources were for all practical purposes infinite. It may well be that in some possible worlds, that could still be true, but it's increasingly looking like we're going to be stuck here with only one world's resources to draw on. And while most reasonable people are aware that we're using up much of our children's inheritance, and handing them debt in exchange, I don't think as a society we've really come to grips with the consequence of that knowledge.
We're rather like the investors who were complicit in Madoff's scheme, playing along while the getting is good. At least some of us know that the game is rigged, but we're not going to be the first to blow the whistle.
It's clear that getting to a steady-state economy will be hard, perhaps even impossible (although it's worth noting that living systems have accomplished that feat.) But what a challenge! How do we keep the dynamism of modern capitalist economies without borrowing from the future? What does it mean to keep the real costs of what we consume on the balance sheet? Will the economy of the future be built on aesthetic value exchange (the whuffie of Cory Doctorow's imagination), with renewable energy in harness and physical materials seamlessly recycled. Great questions, great opportunities for us to invent the answers!
Professional climate worrier Joe Romm starts to have an inking:
One of my New Year’s resolutions is to blog more about the general lameness of the economics profession when it comes to energy and climate issues [Note to self: How about losing a few pounds?].

I was in the midst of putting this resolution off for a few weeks when I saw a quote by Robert Stavins that seemed to sum up the value-subtracted that economists bring to the world.
But he still can't resist people who get the wrong problem wrong, thus coming up with the right answer.
I know it is hopeless ask the media and policymakers to stop listening to economists, but if anyone can tell me of any intelligent thing a major economist has recently said on energy or climate other than Weitzman — (see Harvard economist disses most climate cost-benefit analyses) — or Stern (see Stern admits report “badly underestimated” climate change risks), I’ll cook them a soggy dinner.
Weitzman at least has a point, albeit one I have been making for fifteen years.

Stern? Stern values the destruction of the biosphere in terms of lost productivity, and then twists the numbers a bit by artificially lowering the discount rate. Is this really the right way to think about preserving the viability of the Earth?

Anybody who values climate policy in terms of growth on a hundred year time scale that way should start over. As James Annan points out, why should we care whether our descendants are nine times wealthier than we or ten? What foolishness.

The game is over kids. Put the dice and the tokens away. It's time to get serious and clean up the house. Maybe we can play again later.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Can Computation Help Solve the Economic Crisis?

Thanks to "Tidal" for pointing out the fascinating essay by a similar title, CAN SCIENCE HELP SOLVE THE ECONOMIC CRISIS? by Brown, Kauffman, Palmrose and Smolin. I mostly agree with their perspective (I have a few quibbles about what "equilibrium" means) enthusiastically, and I appreciate the kick it gave me to express what I have come up with so far myself.

As I admitted in the discussion on a recent thread here, I have come to the conclusion that a workable, resource-aware economic theory is absolutely indispensable in the current circumstances. Unfortunately, we don't really have one, so in our new circumstances, coming up with one is about the most important thing to do.

One thing about complex systems is that you don't ever completely understand them; you just get to know them. The way you get to know things about the economy is exactly the way you go about getting to know things about oceanography, glaciology, geophysics/planetary physics and astrophysics, and to some extent meteorology, among many other disciplines I don't have much of a feel for.

That is, you build a complex artifact that behaves similarly to the complex system in nature that is of interest, and you study it as a proxy for the unique real system, constantly seeking to improve its resemblance to the real system.

In other words, you build a science around computer modeling.

Actually, the best thing to do is to build a whole lot of computer models, and have them compete to give you the best explanation.

Climatological aside: Note that nobody has created an otherwise useful dynamic model of the atmosphere that has the small sensitivity that many people are urging you to bank on. I don't know if this is for want of trying. It seems, actually, like something very much worth trying, so it surprises me that nobody wants to take it on seriously.

So how do you build a useful computer model of economics?

Well, let's consider how you build a useful model of climate.

Is there some code that says "here is the El Nino kicking in every few years?" "here is the PDO" "time to add a cold front"? No, you let the properties emerge from the low level description: here is what a parcel of air will do, in this environment, heated in this way, pushed that. Then you put all the parcels together and watch them behave. Once they settle down and act reasonably, the process couples back, and you start learning things from the modeling process. The 3 degrees C global warming stuff is a byproduct. It is not the main output of the system; the system is the partnership of minds and complex simulations; the output is understanding about the real system.

There are models of the atmosphere with much smaller numbers of parameters, and they can be didactically useful and useful in coming up with hypotheses. The general equilibrium models of conventional economics are similar to those. They are like the undergrad matlab exercises in meteorology classes. Except that they seem carefully designed to be anti-scalable; if I recall correctly, computation cost for economic equilibrium models actually scales exponentially with the number of free variables!

What we want is a huge system where the computational cost of each individual event is very small and the scaling is nearly linear. And we want huge amounts of observational data to calibrate against them. And we want to build lots of models. Lots and lots.

The analogy to a continuum model for economics is an agent model. The simulation thus needs make no assumptions of perfect information, price equilibrium, discount rates, anything. No approximation for the whole system is necessary and it seems likely that none is even possible. What we can model is how individuals make decisions in certain circumstances and see the large scale economic activities that emerge.

I've met a few people who both understand this much and indeed are pursuing it. Yet they are still hypnotized by the idiot passivity of the "neoclassicists" (H/T Erik Conway) and thus, think of economics as a branch of pure science,.

It is anything but. Economics is the most applied of sciences.

Of course, for almost thirty years we have been assured that everything would go just marvelously if we refrained from designing the economic marketplace at all. The result was, well, we'll see. Everyone agrees that the times for hands off is over.

Nowadays, we don't need to just understand economics as a matter of some urgency, we need to apply the understanding that we acquire. Computational science applied diligently and competently is the only tool that is up to the job.

I say this even though, of course, computation was at least an accelerating and exacerbating factor in the current mess.

The purpose of the computations is to represent how humans, acting individually and collectively as economic actors, make decisions, and to design the system to reward benign behaviors and increase the cost of behaviors that might be harmful, even sociopathic. Such experiments performed, appropriate incentives and disincentives can be written into law after they have been written into a particularly appealing model.

The idea of achieving such an option by the sort of deal-cutting and difference-splitting that normally is how laws are put into effect will fail. The entire package has to be designed coherently and implemented both urgently and fastidiously. The response of the real system has to be monitored carefully, and feed back to tune the system.

People need, essentially, the maximum freedom that is consistent with a sustainable totality. That is a hard problem.

It also has to get past the politicians intact. Also hard.

A lot of people want very much for it to be an easy problem, but it ain't.

Economics is about to begin to undergo a transition very much like the one climatology is still struggling with. Suddenly, it is consequential, and as a consequence of its sudden consequence, it is not up to the task. It's a matter that should engage whatever creativity and intelligence that can be mustered.

Computer generated glowing fossil Created by R Neil Marshman in 2003 - using a fractal generating program and then enhancing it with Paintshop to create a glowing fossil image. Released under GNU GFDL 1.2.
See Wikipedia for details.

Update: My enthusiasm for the Edge article has waned upon reading the commentary to the article, though I'm still glad of the incentive to state my beliefs about this.

Of course, different people have different ideas of what the "crisis" actually amounts to. They seem to be talking not about what I'd call the economic crisis but merely about the financial crisis that hastened the inevitable economic crisis.

I am looking at a longer term than these people are. In my view the economic crisis is about reconciling the creative power of the marketplace and the desire for prosperity with the constraints of sustaining the planet as a suitable habitat for life indefinitely.

Regarding the short run, I don't know whether a theory of economics can properly regulate the financial sector without substantially diminishing it (my own preference). Anyway I very much doubt that such a theory could emerge in time to help with the present tangle. And in any case, finance is just the froth; I am interested in the cappuccino. The fact that some people like too much froth is neither here nor there. As far as I am concerned, the crisis is reconciling economic policy with sustainability with political viability.

Second, they refer to Eric Weinstein who in his comments and on his website refers to some advance in economic theory involving differential geometry. I don't doubt that a better general model could emerge from some mathematical legerdemeain, but better is not necessarily good. Climatology teaches us the limits of general theories of messy systems. What I'm advocating here is a pragmatic approach that lets go of the idea that economics is a discipline that is subject to a eureka-style generalization at all.

Regarding the ambitions of this posting, I don't really know on whose behalf I'm being ambitious. It's hard for me to see a scenario where I actually end up working on such a project. I'd be willing to participate if I could see how, but I have shown no signs of developing the political skill or political capital to start such a huge ball rolling.

I am hoping someone else reads this who can pull it off. (Youth would be a tremendous advantage here.) This is also a long-term project, and its fruits probably won't emerge for decades.

I have ideas sometimes. Some of them are good sometimes. I am not too fussy about taking credit for them either, so just go for it if you can. A hat tip in my direction along the way would please me but is in no way required.

What I am saying is that, at least in part, this is what a realistic science of economics would look like.

The end of Darwinism is nigh

The Darwinist hegemony over our culture has definitely peaked, according to a recent claim. Unfortunately, similar claims have been ongoing for well over a century. This does not bode well for the not-the-IPCC denial crowd going away anytime soon.

I guess we were getting that picture already, but it's grimly interesting to see how long these sorts of things can persist.

H/T to Roger Coppock on the Global Change list for the link.


Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Best Blog Entries 2008

I'm more than a little pleased that one of my contributions has been selected for inclusion in "The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2008", the third edition of this publication.

Alas, it won't drive much traffic here, as it was on the late, lamented Correlations blog.

It isn't entirely polished, so I am happy I get an editorial pass at it before it goes to print.

Here it is in case you missed it the first time: The Third Branch of Science .


Monday, January 5, 2009

Economics as Begging the Question

I mean "begging the question" in the original sense, of constructing a complex but ultimately circular argument that depends on the result you intend to to prove, not the unfortunate sense that it inevitably developed in casual speech of "begging for, or raising another question".

I think great swaths of economics are based on question-begging. In pursuing the blogospheric take on Tierney vs. Holdren, I came across this amazing essay by Dave Roth on a blog called Geryon: Obama's science advisor and the theory of sustainability. (See also follow-up articles Response on Holdren and Tierney and The Holdren Pick on the same blog, the latter by co-author "Bosie".)

For a more defensible quote, consider this from the latter:
I did not intend to question the ability of Holdren to be a useful and competent science adviser. I know nothing about his views other than in the Erhlich-Simon wager, so perhaps it is unfair to judge him on the basis of this incident.

Note, however, that Holdren can continue to maintain something (that we can run out of natural resources like oil) that is provably wrong on economics but that this does not make people question his fitness as a science adviser, while Larry Summers statements on genetics and intelligence (which may be wrong but are not universally agreed to be wrong) disqualified him in the eyes of many from being an economics adviser. I find this double standard interesting.
Now this sounds reasonable at first blush. I don't propose to open the Summers can of worms here, but it is interesting that the claim is not just that "we are running out of oil" is taken as false nor even that the claim "we CAN run out of oil" is taken to be false, but that it is taken to be provably false ON ECONOMIC GROUNDS.

This is perfectly silly, isn't it? Whether there is or isn't an essentially infinite supply of a consumable resource is not a question that can be settled by economics, any more than the orbit of Jupiter can be settled by a plant taxonomist. If there is a result in economics (to the exclusion of geology) that shows that "it is impossible to run out of oil", that result is false, and must be based on false reasoning or false assumptions.

Now let's go back to the original article:
Now, of course, I might disagree with (to take just one example) the psychologist's conclusions about what we should do in response to the agreed-upon fact that x percentage of child abusers were abused themselves. That is to say that it is generally considered acceptable for me to disagree with an expert on the ultimate implications of basic facts and theories in the sciences (such as, e.g., the best policy for preventing child abuse), but it is not considered acceptable (i.e., worthy of an educated, intelligent person) to disagree with them on what the basic facts and theories are.

When a biologist explains the theory of evolution, provides evidence for the theory, and then shows that the whole framework of biology is based on this theory, only a deeply unscientific person would dispute it. We might still fairly dispute whether this theory means that there is no god (for example) -- so we could disagree on secondary matters -- but on the primary matter itself there is no real tolerance for disagreement (and there shouldn't be either).

And this rule holds for basically every hard and soft science I can think of except for one, and that one is economics. For some reason, it is considered completely acceptable for intelligent, educated people not only to disagree with economists on the secondary matters (i.e., the ultimate implications of economic theory and facts) but also on primary matters (i.e., on the facts and basic theory themselves).

People can, and do, routinely claim things like "trade makes everyone worse off," "the earth will run out of natural resources," "the rise of China and India will be bad for US standard of living," and "the global prosperity of today is not sustainable." All of these things are not only proven wrong by economic theory, but they are demonstrably wrong and can be shown to be demonstrably wrong with all sorts of empirical evidence. But for some reason, it's entirely legitimate to ignore or disbelieve the most basic tenets of economics in a way that is not permissible in any other field.
Well, I don't think that's true at all. Climatology, for one, is constantly questioned as we can attest around here easily enough. Evolutionary biology is constantly called into question by fundamentalists. Even branches of pure physics are sometimes questioned for being unfalsifiable and fanciful. The claim that it should be otherwise
("there is no real tolerance for disagreement (and there shouldn't be either)") is made without justification, and shows a real lack of understanding of human intellectual history. Disciplines really do go off the rails; disciplines really ought to be prepared to defend themselves.

If someone makes the claim that a theory of human resource allocation decisions is sufficient to prove the claim that physical reservoirs of a consumable resource are inexhaustible, they are making a remarkably extravagant, to my ears bizarre claim. I don't believe them that this is "proven" by economics, and what is more, if it turns out that most economists believe such a thing, it reflects very badly on the credibility of the field as a whole.

The whole Tierney/Holdren thing is great in that it brings the question of the relative credibility of economics vs climatology into focus. I think it's a very good idea to keep this question in people's minds.

Roth's position is easy and at first blush consistent: "trust all experts". However, I will have no difficulty finding experts on oil recovery who believe that we are closing in on depletion of practically recoverable oil. This contradicts Roth's claimed economics-based expertise, and thus resolves nothing. We have to determine whose "expertise" actually corresponds to reality.

Interestingly, one can make an economist-style argument by noting that oil companies hire many more seismologists and geologists than they do economists...