Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Presidential Election: Summarized in Three Lines

Over this interminably long election process when asked what I think about the candidates I've come up with three lines that summarize how I view Trump and Clinton.

He's crass. She's corrupt.

He lies because he likes to. She lies because she has to.

He is temperamentally unfit to be president. She is ethically unfit to be president.

Great choices!

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.