Monday, June 29, 2015

One more institution placing its trusted position in peril

In a book review of Climate Change: The Facts 2014, Matt Ridely in The Climate Wars’ Damage to Science provides a reasonably extensive listing of the frauds and scandals related to climate change research. Quite properly, his contention is not that climate change is not happening. Rather, the issue is that fraud and self-serving advocacy has so permeated the research arena in this area, that there is an enormous miasma of false information which makes rational and empirical decision-making virtually impossible.

As lengthy as his list is, it is not complete. Still, this too will pass away. Paul Ehrlich has been consistently wrong about population consequences for more than fifty years. There are still totalitarian exterminationists who subscribe to his beliefs but for all that, his arguments no longer hold sway.

Ridley does point out one consequence to this decades long climate change folderol, the democratization of science. When so many of the "scientists" are self-interested advocates, scientists from peripheral fields have come to the rescue as well as non-scientists with sharp minds and polymath interests.
There is, however, one good thing that has happened to science as a result of the climate debate: the democratisation of science by sceptic bloggers. It is no accident that sceptic sites keep winning the “Bloggies” awards. There is nothing quite like them for massive traffic, rich debate and genuinely open peer review. Following Steven McIntyre on tree rings, Anthony Watts or Paul Homewood on temperature records, Judith Curry on uncertainty, Willis Eschenbach on clouds or ice cores, or Andrew Montford on media coverage has been one of the delights of recent years for those interested in science. Papers that had passed formal peer review and been published in journals have nonetheless been torn apart in minutes on the blogs. There was the time Steven McIntyre found that an Antarctic temperature trend arose “entirely from the impact of splicing the two data sets together”. Or when Willis Eschenbach showed a published chart had “cut the modern end of the ice core carbon dioxide record short, right at the time when carbon dioxide started to rise again” about 8000 years ago, thus omitting the startling but inconvenient fact that carbon dioxide levels rose while temperatures fell over the following millennia.

Scientists don’t like this lèse majesté, of course. But it’s the citizen science that the internet has long promised. This is what eavesdropping on science should be like—following the twists and turns of each story, the ripostes and counter-ripostes, making up your own mind based on the evidence. And that is precisely what the non-sceptical side just does not get. Its bloggers are almost universally wearily condescending. They are behaving like sixteenth-century priests who do not think the Bible should be translated into English.
Ironically, this is somewhat akin to the early days of science in the 17th-19th centuries when amateur scientists, explorers and travellers were responsible for a goodly portion of the acquisition of knew scientific knowledge. The specialization and professionalization of science may end up being a relatively brief interlude, with science change being the catalyst for the movement of the informed public back in to science fields on almost equal footing with the professionals.

In forecasting, groups of informed people usually perform much better than groups of experts. The experts overweight information with which they are familiar (overweighting by discounting uncertainties) and underweighting contextual information. Groups of informed people do a much better job of weighting all factors appropriately and therefore come up with better (more accurate) forecasts. The climate change contretemp may end demonstrating this phenomenon once again. Hopefully to the detriment of the specific advocates such as Michael Mann rather than to the detriment of the reputation of science as a whole. It is this latter possibility which has Ridley concerned.

Viva science and let's hope that this actually is a catalyst to a wider engagement with science rather than a public withdrawal from it (as yet one more institution not to be trusted).

Cognitive Pollution - Economics Edition

From Mythbusters by Don Boudreaux. Boudreaux provides a list of commonly held popular beliefs which he asserts have been roundly disproved. He acknowledges that, however solidly the stake has been driven through the heart of the belief, the rises again.
But as a myth-busting tool, economics is unsurpassed. Perhaps no other science or system of thought has ever busted as many myths as has economics. Yet also: perhaps no other myth-busting enterprise fails as consistently as does economics at convincing large number of people that the myths it busts are in fact busted myths. Acceptance of these myths is constantly reinforced by a combination of (1) innocent economic ignorance (fed, in part, by the above-mentioned great complexity of modern society), (2) not-so-innocent powerful political forces, and (3) a regrettable failure among economists, especially over the past half-century, to engage the public using plain language.
Here is his list of economic myths that he believes have been thoroughly disproved but which remain in circulation. In other words, cognitive pollution.
– the myth that the amount of wealth in the world is fixed (and, hence, that Jones’s gains from trade must have come at the expense of Smith or some Smiths);

– the myth that a higher population of human beings means lower average living standards for human beings;

– the myth that poverty (rather than wealth) has causes;

– the myth that Jones’s successful pursuit of self-interest necessarily harms – or, at the very least, does nothing to help – Smith or some Smiths;

– the myth that mutually consensual trade that occurs across political borders differs in some essential way from mutually consensual trade that occurs within political borders;

– the myth that international trade is a “competition” among nations;

– the myth that prices are arbitrary obstacles established by sellers, and which can be forcibly lowered in order to benefit buyers at the expense only of sellers; (put differently, the myth that a government policy of forcing the prices of goods and services down makes goods and services more accessible and less costly for buyers);

– the myth that wages are arbitrary stipends granted by employers to workers, and which can be forcibly raised in order to benefit sellers of labor (workers) either at no one’s expense or at the expense only of those who purchase labor either directly or indirectly;

– the myth that profits are an unjust and socially pointless (or even harmful) theft of property or value by entrepreneurs and business owners from workers, other suppliers, and consumers;

– the myth that the only, or even the main, costs that people endure in a modern economy are costs expressed in money prices;

– the myth that sustained inflations are caused by rising prices or by higher costs;

– the myth that money is wealth and that wealth is money;

– the myth that there are only a fixed number of jobs for humans to profitably perform;

– the myth that government officials generally have, relative to actors in private-property markets, superior incentives and knowledge to act to promote widespread economic prosperity;

– the myth that raising tax rates necessarily increases government revenues (and, likewise, that lowering tax rates necessarily decreases government revenues);

– the myth that violations of the rights of private-property owners harm only, or even just mostly, those people whose private-property rights are violated;

– the myth that workable, productive, and sustainable complex social orders must be the result of human design (or that human design can improve the workability, productivity, and sustainability of complex social orders).
I think it is interesting that there are many people who would actually agree with particular items on this list but then act in an opposite fashion.

Take, for example, the belief in the myth that we can design workable, productive, and sustainable complex social orders. I think most people would acknowledge that this is indeed a myth, that the world is too complex for us to effectively "design" an intervention with reliably predictable results. But as soon as something bad happens, those same people will whip around and design some pinpoint policy intervention to implement in order to prevent this bad thing from ever happening again. In other words, they act as if they believe that they can indeed design a workable, productive, and sustainable complex social order.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

You read, you read and you read and you think you know something and then you get surprised. I have read and enjoyed both A.C. Doyle (Sherlock Holmes in particular) and P.G. Wodehouse all of my adult life. I knew that the stock phrase "Elementary, My Dear Watson!" was, like "Play it again, Sam", a line never present in the original text.

But I did not know that Wodehouse was the progenitor of that line. From Sherlock Holmes: examining the evidence – in charts:
"Elementary, my dear Watson!" was never said by Sherlock Holmes in any of the stories. The line was first used by PG Wodehouse in an affectionate parody.
The original reformulation is from Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse.

I am too bewildered by your premodern challenges

From Goodnight, California by Victor Davis Hanson. An extended lament about government's capacity to focus on the absurd, trivial and ideological as opposed to seeking to address real problems being suffered by real citizens.

The governance philosophy of the political elite which extends beyond California:
I am too bewildered by your premodern challenges, so I will take psychological refuge in my postmodern fantasies.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Sea Dirge

H/T Lapham's Quarterly

A Sea Dirge
by Lewis Carroll

There are certain things—as a spider, a ghost,
The income tax, gout, an umbrella for three—
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the sea.

Pour some saltwater over the floor—
Ugly I’m sure you’ll allow it to be:
Suppose it extended a mile or more,
That’s very like the sea.

Beat a dog till he howls outright—
Cruel, but all very well for a spree:
Suppose that he did so day and night,
That would be like the sea.

I had a vision of nursery maids;
Tens of thousands passed by me—
All leading children with wooden spades,
And this was by the sea.

Who invented those spades of wood?
Who was it cut them out of the tree?
None, I think, but an idiot could—
Or one that loved the sea.

It is pleasant and dreamy, no doubt, to float
With “thoughts as boundless, and souls as free”:
But, suppose you are very unwell in the boat,
How do you like the sea?

There is an insect that people avoid
(Whence is derived the verb “to flee”).
Where have you been by it most annoyed?
In lodgings by the sea.

If you like your coffee with sand for dregs,
A decided hint of salt in your tea,
And a fishy taste in the very eggs—
By all means choose the sea.

And if, with these dainties to drink and eat,
You prefer not a vestige of grass or tree,
And a chronic state of wet in your feet,
Then—I recommend the sea.

For I have friends who dwell by the coast—
Pleasant friends they are to me!
It is when I am with them I wonder most
That anyone likes the sea.

They take me a walk: though tired and stiff,
To climb the heights I madly agree;
And, after a tumble or so from the cliff,
They kindly suggest the sea.

I try the rocks, and I think it cool
That they laugh with such an excess of glee,
As I heavily slip into every pool
That skirts the cold, cold sea.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

If you really want to live, we'd better start at once to try

From Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the opening paragraph.
If you really want to live, we'd better start at once to try;
If we don't, it doesn't matter, but we'd better start to die.
- W.H. Auden

The lines by Auden reproduced above compress precisely what this book is about. The choice is simple: between now and the inevitable end of our days, we can choose either to live or to die. Biological life is an automatic process, as long as we take care of the needs of the body. But to live in the sense the poet means it is by no means something that will happen by itself. In fact everything conspires against it: if we don't take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency. Biologically programmed instincts will use it to replicate the genetic material we carry; the culture will make sure that we use it to propagate its values and institutions; and other people will try to take as much of our energy as possible to further their own agenda-all of this without regard to how any of this will affect us. We cannot expect anyone to help us live; we must discover how to do it by ourselves.

Friday, June 26, 2015

They will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. *We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."¹

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind?

I came across a discussion that ultimately led in several directions. The upshot was several points within the Buddhist tradition regarding appropriate speech. From AN 5.198 PTS: A iii 243, Vaca Sutta: A Statement translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

"A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people."
There is also from here:
And what other five conditions must be established in himself?

[1] "Do I speak at the right time, or not?

[2] "Do I speak of facts, or not?

[3] "Do I speak gently or harshly?

[4] "Do I speak profitable words or not?

[5] "Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?

"O bhikkhus, these five conditions are to be investigated in himself and the latter five established in himself by a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another."
Right time, true facts, gentleness, constructiveness, and goodwill. Sounds like a good foundation.

These ideas find a different form of expression in Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind? in Miscellaneous Poems by Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872 by Griffith and Farran of London.

Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind?

Oh! Stay, dear child, one moment stay,
Before a word you speak,
That can do harm in any way
To the poor, or to the weak;
And never say of any one
What you’d not have said of you,
Ere you ask yourself the question,
“Is the accusation true?”
And if ’tis true, for I suppose
You would not tell a lie;
Before the failings you expose
Of friend or enemy:
Yet even then be careful, very;
Pause and your words well weigh,
And ask if it be necessary,
What you’re about to say.
And should it necessary be,
At least you deem it so,
Yet speak not unadvisedly
Of friend or even foe,
Till in your secret soul you seek
For some excuse to find;
And ere the thoughtless word you speak,
Ask yourself, “Is it kind?”
When you have ask’d these questions three—
Ask’d them in all sincerity,
I think that you will find,
It is not hardship to obey
The command of our Blessed Lord,—
No ill of any man to say;
No, not a single word.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inversion of political terms

I have commented a number of times in the past few years about the inversion of values between what are called "liberals/left" and "conservatives/right" from the sixties to today. When I was growing up, if you were for freedom of speech, due process, equal rights under the law, etc., you were a liberal or of the left whereas people concerned about communities and identity and defense, etc. were conservative or of the right.

Those terms have been inverted so that conservatives of the oughts are the liberals of the sixties and seventies. They are the ones for due process and equality under the law, they are the ones for international engagement, they are the ones protecting free speech, rule of law, tolerance, privacy, etc. It is both intriguing and puzzling to me. Robert Tracinski has his own list and issues in Seven Liberal Pieties That Only the Right Still Believes. His list of seven include:
1. The Right to Offend

2. The Value of a Liberal Education

3. Government Should Stay Out of the Bedroom

4. Live and Let Live

5. Support for Israel

6. Support for Human Rights

7. The Dignity of the Working Man
I think number seven is a good catch. The right very much esteems both the work ethic and the inherent dignity of any constructive work in a manner that the left has long lost.

Tracinski observes,
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly had the experience of saying things that would have been considered pieties in the liberal catechism when I was young—and which now will get you labeled as a howling reactionary.

In retrospect, this is partly because the left didn’t always mean some of the ideals it used to pronounce for itself, or at least it didn’t mean them in the high-minded, principled way they sounded. The left had the reputation of being defenders of free speech, for example, but it was always something of a case of “free speech for me but not for thee.” They were all in favor of “questioning authority”—until they became the authorities.

More important, the left has moved farther to the left, leaving moderate “liberalism” behind and embracing a more consistent, authoritarian collectivism.
An interesting collection. I think commitment to international trade and international engagement are two additional important items where there has been an inversion and which should be part of this list.

Pluralistic ignorance

Steven Pinker on Taboos, Political Correctness, and Dissent

Pinker makes a critical point that the overlapping of distribution curves (whether within race, religion, class, gender, etc.) means that you should never mistake the average for the individual. Averages are a useful but crude substitute when you have no other knowledge but specific knowledge is always superior and to be sought after when making critical decisions. Whatever the attribute, and no matter what the group, there is a distribution curve of that attribute and that distribution curve will have greater or lesser standard deviations. Consequently, knowing the average is better than knowing nothing but it is never as good as knowing the particular.

If dissenters are punished and can anticipate that they are going to being punished then you might have a situation where no one actually believes something, but everyone believes that everyone else believes it, therefore no one is willing to be the little boy who says the emperor is naked. And this pluralistic ignorance, as it is sometimes called, is easily implemented when you have the punishing or censoring of unpopular views.