Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Matt Ridley: Global Warming Versus Global Greening

Matt Ridley, a well-known science journalist and author, gave a speech recently on his views about the global warming (or should I use the term “climate change”?). It’s a long essay containing many references and charts. Ridley claims there is another possibility between the two well-known sides on this issue.

What keeps science honest, what stops it from succumbing entirely to confirmation bias, is that it is decentralized, allowing one lab to challenge another.

That’s how truth is arrived at in science, not by scientists challenging their own theories (that’s a myth), but by scientists disputing each other’s theories.

These days there is a legion of well paid climate spin doctors. Their job is to keep the debate binary: either you believe climate change is real and dangerous or you’re a denier who thinks it’s a hoax.

But there’s a third possibility they refuse to acknowledge: that it’s real but not dangerous. That’s what I mean by lukewarming, and I think it is by far the most likely prognosis.

I am not claiming that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; it is.

I am not saying that its concentration in the atmosphere is not increasing; it is.

I am not saying the main cause of that increase is not the burning of fossil fuels; it is.

I am not saying the climate does not change; it does.

I am not saying that the atmosphere is not warmer today than it was 50 or 100 years ago; it is.

And I am not saying that carbon dioxide emissions are not likely to have caused some (probably more than half) of the warming since 1950.

I agree with the consensus on all these points.

I am not in any sense a “denier”, that unpleasant, modern term of abuse for blasphemers against the climate dogma, though the Guardian and New Scientist never let the facts get in the way of their prejudices on such matters. I am a lukewarmer.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing. I lean towards Ridley’s lukewarm stance. I think we humans have some impact on climate but from what I’ve read we’re still recovering from the last glacial period (and don’t know when we could re-enter it) and there are a number of natural cycles that intersect to cause periods of warming and cooling.
I recently took an Alaskan cruise where we visited several glaciers and toured areas where the guides noted that that the glaciers from the last Ice Age had ground down the formerly sharp mountainous features into smooth valleys. (One guide even noted that one of the glaciers actually is advancing.) I also know that in the previous Ice Age the Boston area (where I live) was buried under a thick layer of ice. This layer retreated long before the Industrial Age when humans started to generate large amounts of carbon dioxide. This pre-human glacial retreat never comes up when I discuss global warming with people who point to the currently retreating glaciers as their evidence for our impact.

So I guess that makes me a lukewarm Lukewarmer!

Monday, October 17, 2016

Book Recommendations to Change Minds (on both sides)

Arnold Kling links to a post by Cass Sunstein titled Five Books to Change Liberals' Minds. Sunstein, a legal scholar and professor at Harvard Law School is also known for his book (co-authored with Richard Thaler), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Nudge discusses how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives. The authors argue that “People often make poor choices – and look back at them with bafflement! We do this because as human beings, we all are susceptible to a wide array of routine biases that can lead to an equally wide array of embarrassing blunders in education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, happiness, and even the planet itself.”

While I agree with Sunstein that achieving objectivity is much, much harder than most people realize, I have philosophical issues with the government trying to steer me into making choices that officials deem are better for me. I'd rather that private institutions apply these ideas for a number of reasons that I won't go into here.

Having said that, I like Sunstein's intro to his post.

It can be easy and tempting, especially during a presidential campaign, to listen only to opinions that mirror and fortify one's own. That’s not ideal, because it eliminates learning and makes it impossible for people to understand what they dismiss as “the other side.”

I see examples of this insular thinking all to often. We all gravitate to news sources that reflect our conclusions. Liberals prefer PBS or MSNBC while conservatives glom onto Fox or the Drudge Report. Personally, I occasionally visit “enemy territory” not just to see if there is a valid alternate view or explanation but also to understand how the opposing side thinks so that maybe I can communicate my ideas better or (horrors) maybe modify my position!

The books he recommends are:

Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed,” by James Scott

A Matter of Interpretation,” by Antonin Scalia

Side Effects and Complications: The Economic Consequences of Health-Care Reform,” by Casey Mulligan

The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt

Order Without Law: How Neighbors Settle Disputes,” by Robert Ellickson

Of these five I've read one and a half. Read all of The Righteous Mind and started Side Effects and Complications but haven't finished it yet. Other books have barged into my queue! Haidt's book instantly lodged itself onto my short list of favorites. Highly recommended!

Kling in turn offers a list of books.

On education: Goldin and Katz, “The Race Between Education and Technology” and Elizabeth Green, “Building a Better Teacher.”

Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”. [I've read most of it and agree with Kling's recommendation. It has a lot of information on the subconscious influences on our objectivity and decision making.]

Joseph Henrich’s “The Secret of Our Success” - “a good reminder that there are other social norms in the background that are important. Another book on the importance of culture is Peter Turchin’s 'War, Peace, and War.'”

On economics: L. Randall Wray’s “Why Minsky Matters” and George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, “Animal Spirits”. Scott Sumner’s history of the Great Depression, “The Midas Paradox” [Another one on the towering pile of books to be read.]

On family life: “Our Kids,” Robert Putnam who “coined the phrase 'bifurcated family patterns.' Isabel Sawhill’s “Generation Unbound”

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Kling’s Three Axes: How Do Conservatives Explain Communists?

A reader on Arnold Kling’s blog asks this interesting question about his three axes model of political language as it applies to communism versus conservatism.

“how does conservative opposition to Communism (in the second half of the 20th century) fit on the civilization-barbarianism axis? I’m not sure that the Soviet Union or communist China are really thought of as “barbarians”. It seems weird that the main competitor in a space race can be a “barbarian”.”

I’ve been thinking whether there are key concepts that lie at the root of the axes Arnold has identified. I’ve been considering whether the desire for order explains the civilization/barbarism axis, autonomy for the libertarian freedom/coercion axis and equality for the liberal oppressor/oppressed axis. When the question came up about how Communism falls into this I thought at first that this might refute my attempt to identify the underlying premises. I say this because a totalitarian regime seeks order too although it is not based on the religion or tradition foundation that conservatives favor. However, I’d say the ultimate purpose of the order communism imposes is to achieve equality. “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” is the statement that captures the intent behind communism. Anyway, food for thought.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How to Win Friends and Influence Refugee Policy by Megan McArdle [and influence others]

I like the approach Megan McArdle takes in dealing with the thunderclouds of heated debate that have mushroomed over the Syrian refugee crisis. She lays out the various arguments for and against having the U.S. take in some of these refugees. She says the following about the posts bloggers on both sides have written.

The posts are not intended to convince anyone. They are to signal tribal loyalties to people who already agree with you, while you marinate in your own sense of moral superiority.

Then further on says:

If these factions want to convince other people, they’re going about it all wrong.

It took me years of writing on the Internet to learn what is nearly an iron law of commentary: The better your message makes you feel about yourself, the less likely it is that you are convincing anyone else. The messages that make you feel great about yourself (and of course, your like-minded friends) are the ones that suggest you’re a moral giant striding boldly across the landscape, wielding your inescapable ethical logic. The messages that work are the ones that try to understand what the other side is thinking, on the assumption that they are no better or worse than you. So if you are actually trying to help the Syrian refugees, rather than marinate in your own sensation of overwhelming virtue, you should avoid these tactics.

I agree! Unfortunately it is all too easy to cast those who disagree with you as having questionable (at best) morals and intentions. It’s also too easy to talk in prepackaged catch phrases that are readily accepted by those who agree with you but fall on deaf ears of those who don’t. The end result isn’t a true debate or civil conversation but pontificating and posturing. I’ve said a number of times here that it takes a lot of work being objective when thinking things through. It takes even more effort trying to fathom how someone else reached their conclusions then trying to explain your position in terms that the other person is more likely to understand or accept. I’m not saying they will agree with you but they could come away with a better understanding of your position. I can speak from experience that the method McArdle recommends makes more of an impact than just lobbing verbal hand grenades at each other.

Read her entire article. McArdle doesn’t go into specifics on how you can fashion your position in a way that someone who disagrees will understand. For a start in the right direction I continue to highly recommend Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics. For a more theoretical approach check out Jonathan Haidt’s Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Politics and Narratives

I've written before about the work of Jonathan Haidt who has influenced my thinking on morality and politics. This essay by The Independent Whig does a nice job summarizing Haidt's work while also touching on the role of stories. In fact here is a quote from early in the article.

The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor, and every ideology has its own story in the form of “grand narrative” that describes the social world from the perspective of that ideology.

He then outlines the Grand Liberal and Grand Conservative narratives.

Anyway, I recommend reading this essay.

Friday, October 16, 2015

What I Learned about Climate Change: The Science is not Settled by David Siegel

This is a long essay (49 pages!) by a writer who once bought into the story Al Gore and others have pushed about global warming being caused by humans. After conducting his own investigation Siegel came up with different conclusions. He also challenges the "science is settled" mantra we hear when you dare to question whether we're causing global warming. Siegel still follows a vegan diet and calls himself a Democrat so it's not as though he abandoned all of his beliefs in one fell swoop. He just changed his mind on climate change.

I highly recommend this essay both for its message and as an example of someone who thought things through and came up with different conclusion after thinking objectively about the subject.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Demonizing the Opposition – An Example

Kevin Vallier at Bleeding Heart Libertarians comments on a post by Robert Krugman in which he dehumanizes conservatives in order to justify his approach for ignoring anything they say. The context of Krugman’s post is to explain why Republican evangelicals can support Trump who doesn’t align with their conservative principles. According to Krugman,

What happened to conservative principles?

Actually, nothing — because those alleged principles were never real. Conservative religiosity, conservative faith in markets, were never about living a godly life or letting the invisible hand promote entrepreneurship. Instead, it was all as Corey Robin describes it: Conservatism is

a reactionary movement, a defense of power and privilege against democratic challenges from below, particularly in the private spheres of the family and the workplace.

It’s really about who’s boss, and making sure that the man in charge stays boss. Trump is admired for putting women and workers in their place, and it doesn’t matter if he covets his neighbor’s wife or demands trade wars.

As Vallier says, “Krugman’s opponents aren’t just wrong: they oppose fundamental moral and political values (equality) that any reasonable, decent person should accept. How are Very Serious Progressives like Krugman to share a country such individuals? Krugman’s answer is clear: support state power to crush conservative policies and criticize their intelligence and character.”

I’ve been harping recently on Arnold Kling’s e-book Three Languages of Politics but to me Krugman provides a clear example of the preference that Kling has identified for liberals to explain things in terms of the oppressed versus the oppressors. Trump and conservatives don’t believe what they do (and who knows what Trump really believes?) because they’re mistaken. Oh, no. It’s because they want to maintain their oppressor status. So that absolves progressives of the need to fairly answer positions taken by Republicans or conservatives. After all, these right wingers are the enemy and sub-human and therefore don’t deserve to be treated fairly.

There are several problems with this. First, this will continue the polarization that almost everyone decries. Second, Krugman implicitly alleges to be able to read the minds of everyone who claims to be a conservative. In other words, anyone who espouses conservative principles by definition doesn’t really believe what they’re saying. He can somehow divine that their real intent is to oppress people. Not just some conservatives. All of them. Nice, huh? This in turn leads to the third problem: intellectual laziness. Your principles are protected behind the insular force field of demonizing the opposition. Essentially this mind set boils down to: “Move on. Move on. There is nothing to hear folks. This is just a crazy right (or left) winger ranting. Our ideas are so indisputably and blindingly correct that anyone who challenges them just proves how subhuman and despicable they are.”