30 July 2008

Most stuff is mostly alright most places

The above header is probably not going to sell many page views. But it is newsworthy, in the sense that it would be a novel observation for a news organisation to publish. It's a species of what I recall Dr Don Stammer aptly describing in the 1980s as the most likely outcome of any problem: the "muddle through". It has been prompted by another delightful piece that the InstaProf has nudged my way by John Tierney in the New York Times' Science section on 29 July. After the deluge of disaster that the media tips on us every day, I reckon this piece should have been given lead item status by every media organisation on the planet (and now even Memeorandum's algorithm and ALDaily has picked up this piece, so it's sure resonating with someone other than me and the Prof).

The header the NY Times uses is:

"FINDINGS: 10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List"

And, along with confining it to the deep innards of the journal by placing it in the mostly unread "Science" section, the header sufficiently contextualises this item, and neutralises its potential impact on the media's credibility, by letting the reader know early that what they are about to read is some quaint, quirky, faintly amusing, life style stuff from a possibly off-beam science type, that we can all laugh at and move on from comfortably, knowing it isn't serious or real news.

But wait; is this the case? Here's what Mr. Tierney says definitively (? ) we don't have to worry about because the concerns expressed are mostly bunkum:

- saturated fat,

- CO2 emissions from car air-conditioners,

- food miles,

- carcinogens from cellphone microwaves;

- plastic bags;

- poisoning from polycarbonate water bottles;

- shark attacks;

- North Pole ice;

- dark matter; &

- worm holes.

After all the stories that both serious and the sensational media outlets have scared us with in recent times about these issues, it surely is news that, on sober reflection, perhaps the media beat ups on these issues were just plain wrong. The big question this observations begs is what else that the media has been scaring us with might also be mostly bunk? An awful lot of the items in Tierney's list seem to be a reaction to greenie alarmism. Could we be "being led a merry dance" on the bigger issues as well, by the democratic, trend picking, fashion responding imperative of the mass media's need to get high numbers of views ?

It is curious too that there is just the hint (in the UK Sunday Times) of a suggestion (hat tip to Samizdata) that the bleeding edge of hip environmentalism might just be beginning to lose its grip in the opinion making urban fashion elites.

Could it be that the zeitgeist on planet saving is just perceptively shifting somewhere on its high exposure surfaces? (as we actually live through cooling seasons, that weren't supposed to be?) Will it soon be hip to be sceptical rather than credulous again? Or will we have to wait until after Obama's ascension to power?

There do seem to be an awful lot of people who have staked their reputations and positions on this global warming malaki being credible, though. And 'twill take a while for many of them to backslide away. Sheez Australia's ABC is even spruiking its alarmist piece for next week's 4 Corners faux investigative journalism program on ... disappearing North Pole ice! I wonder if they'll tell us about polynyas (a term adopted in the 19th century by polar explorers from the Russian word for this persistent phenonema).

27 July 2008

The wag reflex

Glenn Reynolds has diverted me to yet another minor delight and some more homespun heuristics from a post on Wag Reflex by a Sarah Wilson, who describes herself as "..a pet behavior specialist, author, media personality..". Sarah's little nugget of insight is:

"Food for thought: When people teach tricks they are generally success-focused. They laugh and cheer every small attempt the dog makes, and the dogs stay relaxed and happy and LEARN. When people teach “commands” we, all too often, become fault-focused. We get intense and concerned that the dog isn’t doing it “right,” and the dog picks up on that, losing confidence and slowing down.
Take home message? Teach everything as if it were a trick! Seek out the best efforts to reward then have fun, and keep at it. Be success-focused to be successful!"

I like it; the exploitation of the human "wag reflex" as a pathway to learning. My tail is wagging at this. It reminds me of an insight I fancied I gleaned (but have too often forgotten) from a terrific little marketing book called "Make it Stick", that made, the probably obvious but to me hitherto unrealised, distinction between, on the one hand, self learning by discovery of new ideas or concepts and, on the other hand, learning by being taught by others who have already acquired ideas and concepts they want to impart.

My experience has been that self directed heuristic struggles to learn by trial and error are so painstaking and error prone that when you finally convince yourself that some new insight has been acquired, you are unlikely to forget it. But when the learning is something told to you, you are only likely to internalise it and truly acquire it as learned, if there are appropriate hooks that have incentivised your acquisition.

The notion that the best teaching is acquired in games that reward the learner is simple and almost self-evidently true. The best way to bring others to a learned view that you need to share is mostly not to recreate the journey of self -discovery that the teacher might have gone on to gain that hard won nugget, as I am doing here. Rather it is to impart the supposed learning, through techniques that encourage and reward the learner. Hence the power of examples, stories, narrative and actual experience imparted by people who listeners have reason to believe in.

So Sarah's observation that "teach everything as if it were a trick" rings true. Many of us have successfully (or, in my case, not, for want of patience) taught our dogs new tricks with consistentcy and reward. And therefore appreciate that this technique works.

The problem is that you can't always be sure that what is to be taught is worth all the effort that playing such games involves (why bring the ball back if the human oaf is going to throw it away again?) Worse still, is the concomitant realisation that perhaps much of what we have already learnt by such tricks of emotional reward, may just be a stunt to keep humans amused. Dogs seem to get this much better than we do.

The unpredictable journey of learning by self inflicted mistakes might yet be the only reliable route, especially in a universe where selling a bill of goods is world's mojo of choice. It all becomes, as is so often the case, a question of trust.

But who is their to trust: the media? scientists? Obama? Kev? pastors? activists? sceptics? believers? you?

22 July 2008

The meanness of charity; the toughness of love.

Eric Falkenstein's blog has drawn my attention to an observation on the human condition by Walter Bagehot that I had not previously heard, though I had been growing towards a personal sense of it:

" The most melancholy of human reflections, perhaps, is that, on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does most good or harm."

The way Falkenstein paraphrases it is "that charity does more harm than good." He observes that giving someone something does not help them pull themselves out of their bad circumstances to become self reliant, it rather appears to just increase their dependency. This is his little riff on the mutual interdependence of western feelgood third world giving and the third world "cargo cult" mentality.

It can take a long long time to break this cycle, and sometimes it persists in perpetuity (see Untouchables). In Australia the insidious effects of this mutually self supporting vicious circle have seen the perpetuation of the appalling social deprivation from generation to generation in our aboriginal peoples because there has been a benevolent desire not to impose harsh medicine on an already dispossessed people. We have not loved them enough or been smart enough to provide them with some tough love. Hopefully this terrible 50 year plus cycle of charity and dependence has now been broken with the "Intervention" of 2007 and the emergence of leadership from the Noel Pearsons in indigenous politics to provide enough self belief to internally compel a change for the better in these communities.

It seems most forms of raw charity just make the giver feel good whilst making the receiver more dependant. This is not a startlingly new nor a difficult to understand observation, if you are genuinely interested in good outcomes for other people. It doesn't always seem to play well politically on the stump; but you can see it actually happening in your own children or in the kids you went to school with, if you care to look for it. The concept of "tough love" is an old, venerable and true one for humanity. And, though unpopular, and therefore, in western democracies, potentially imperilled, the centrality of tough love to good outcomes over time, needs to be re-asserted and reiterated as a treasure that our civilization passes on to us. Otherwise our worse selves, our superficial self-centred selves, get the better of us in the continual contest in our democracies between good policy and good politics.

Good government POLICY on climate change:

Do nothing.

Why? Because the cuurent policy prescriptions:

1. restrain poverty reducing economic development and spontaneously generated market solutions,
2. place huge power in the hands of an inhuman and inflexible centralised bureaucracy, and
3. seem likely to have no material effect on climate.


Good government POLITICS on climate change:
Be seen to do something.

Why? Because:

1. citizens want to feel less bad about living in prosperity when others aren't,
2. boffins can consolidate their influence on bureaucracy, and
3. politicians can perpetuate their hold on power.

And good politics nearly always beats good policy when they are in conflict in a democracy. The disturbing thing about the current zeitgeist on this is the amazing delusionary grandstanding and sanctimonious rectitude of the climate change true believers and their certainty that their prescriptions will work to save the planet.
There is a simple straddle on this apparent conflict between good politics and good policy, available to the conscience of a politician who suspects this climate alarmism is bunk, but also knows that being seen to act is politically essential: be seen to be doing something whilst actually doing nothing. This seems to be the actual end point of the current climate change policy postion of the Federal Government in Australia after all its self congratulatory posturing since it was elected last year, and in the Federal Opposition's tepid response. The danger though, as usual, is that the massively intrusive bureaucratic infrastructures, the concentration of power and the erosions of personal freedom that are the necessary by-products of these grand schemes, will be left in tact potentially forever and in any event long after the pointlessness of the government's prescriptions has finally dawned on the credulous voting public.

The tough love of neglect looks like a much better policy on global climate than the self indulgent charity of impoverishing ourselves by trying to reduce our carbon emissions. This seemingly benevolent intervention will likely create many more problems than it solves, but the main problems that this self indulgence fosters are its encroachments on human freedom and the perpetuation of hollow justifications for increasing government control over people's lives. I seem to recall that this is a theme that the great Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has been promulgating recently. So I at least have some good company on this, even if this argument seems to be an unpopular and ill-regarded position by our current media and by our political masters.


16 July 2008

More threalmic heuristics

I've just rediscovered an apt word for this blog's current preoccupations: "heuristics". It is prompted by an appealing post on Econlog that resonated here mightily. The basic proposition posited there is:

" 1. If you don't have clear and convincing evidence that doing something is better than doing nothing, do nothing.

2. If you know that doing nothing is bad, but don't have clear and convincing evidence that one action is better than another, do the simplest, standard thing
. "

If only these principles were applied by the perpetuators of the current zeitgeist on global warming, then we would probably be dealing with much saner and more plausible policy options on "climate policy" than those they are foisting on us at present. And this also has the merit of seeming to be an iteration of the "Occam's Razor" principle.

I also reckon that we can shoehorn these heuristics into the rule of thumb model being propounded here: i.e. "truth bests justice, justice bests freedom, freedom bests truth".

The argument would run along the lines that even though the justice of a proposal seems manifest, the basis of the proposition needs also to be true before freedom is restricted by this manifest justice. Therefore if a proposal doesn't have clear and convincing evidence for it, whatever the justice of it might be, it is bettered by the requirement that it be true, because "truth bests justice". If the truth is doubtful, the justice of it is not enough. Likewise when confronted with clear evidence of the truth that something is bad, then justice dictates that we act to deal with if even if our freedom is restricted by taking that action. If however the truth of a proposition has not been adequately tested and and its asserion has not been proceeded to cautiously, justice can only prevail over freedom to the limited extent that we can be confident of the proposition's truth.

It's only a slight stretch, but it seems to work. So we now potentially have two heuristic models to guide us. They don't seem to be in conflict, but this could start getting complicated again, if we're not careful.


12 July 2008

The [city name] G [number of nations] Summit

I found this so irresistable I am copying and pasting it here in full, rather than simply linking. It has even more applications than it was designed for; as a generic column on international institutions that Alan Beattie of the Financial Times wrote and forwarded to his colleague, Gideon Rachman, the FT's Chief Foreign Correspondent.

"By reporters everywhere

An ineffectual international organisation yesterday issued a stark warning about a situation it has absolutely no power to change, the latest in a series of self-serving interventions by toothless intergovernmental bodies.

“We are seriously concerned about this most serious outbreak of seriousness,” said the head of the institution, either a former minister from a developing country or a mid-level European or American bureaucrat. “This is a wake-up call to the world. They must take on board the vital message that my organisation exists.”

The director of the body, based in one of New York, Washington or an agreeable Western European city, was speaking at its annual conference, at which ministers from around the world gather to wring their hands impotentlyabout the most fashionable issue of the day. The organisation has sought to justify its almost completely fruitless existence by joining its many fellow talking-shops in highlighting whatever crisis has recently gained most coverage in the global media.

“Governments around the world must come together to combat whatever this year’s worrying situation has turned out to be,” the director said. “It is not yet time to panic, but if it goes on much further without my institution gaining some credit for sounding off on the issue, we will be justified in labelling it a crisis.”

The organisation, whose existence the White House barely acknowledges and to which hardly any member government intends to give more money or extra powers, has long been fighting a war of attrition against its own irrelevance. By making a big deal out of the fact that the world’s most salient topical issue will be placed on its agenda and then issuing a largely derivative annual report on the subject, it hopes to convey the entirely erroneous impression that it has any influence whatsoever on the situation.

The intervention follows a resounding call to action in the communiqué of the Group of [number goes here] countries at their recent summit ina remote place no-one had previously heard of. The G[number goes here]meeting was preceded by the familiar interminable and inconclusive discussions about whether the G[number goes here] was sufficiently representative of the international community, or whether it should be expanded into a G[number plus 1, 2 or higher goes here] including China, India or any other scary emerging market country that attendees cared to name.

The story was given further padding by a study from an ambulance-chasing Washington think-tank, which warned that it would continue to convene media conference calls until its quixotic and politically suicidal plan to ameliorate whatever crisis was gathering had been given respectful though substantially undeserved attention."

Let's see if we can remember to resurrect this when the next IPPC climate fest takes place in Copenhagen in a year of two.

Hat tip: Adam Smith Institute Blog

08 July 2008

Deniers of "the science"?

Professor Ross Garnaut is the eponymous author of Australia's "me too" version for Kevin Rudd of Lord Stern's climate change review to former UK PM Tony Blair. Stern's report, like Garnaut's, describes the outcomes of a series of fiendishly complicated climate change economic models that his army of bureaucrats ran through some impressively powerful processors a couple of years back. The point of all this expensive highly credentialed taxpayer funded prognostication by the Stern and Garnaut boffins, seems to be to try to demonstrate to we rubes that, although the cost of slowing our economic growth by taxing carbon emissions is huge, these computer models projecting planetary climate change when combined with models of a nation's economy over the coming decades, show us that the economic cost of climate change if we don't eliminate growth in CO2 emissions, is even greater than the cost of their proposed solution. So lets pay the price now for a pay off later.

This is a spectacularly brave hypothesis and a difficult sell. Governments in developed countries have somehow convinced themselves they need to sell this astonishingly ambitious proposition to taxpayers and voters. This is being done so that these developed countries can then in turn morally leverage developing countries (whose carbon emissions are growing fastest) to follow the developed countries lead, and voluntarily raise the cost of their economic growth by restricting carbon emissions. Only then is there a chance that these carbon emission reducing schemes can have a remote prospect of success in even slowing the rate at which the globe is warming. We need the developing nations to participate otherwise the scheme cannot be sufficiently global in operation to actually reduce global CO2 emissions. And because the developing nations are developing they are fast developing into the biggest contributors to the planet's CO2 emissions. If we only succeed in agreeing to reduce carbon emissions in developed countries, who contribute a declining proportion of the world's CO2 emissions each year, and let the developing nations continue emitting unabated, then these hugely interventionist schemes will have no material effect on our planet's climate at all. It doesn't look like a very rational position to believe that India, for one, is going to buy the developed nations' bill of goods on this. India has recently published its own version of the Garnaut and Stern reports, and it seems to take a quite different position on this from the one proposed by the Professor and the Lord.

It is clearly essential to the assertion of this amazing multi-layered centrally co-ordinated global effort to reduce human production of an essential life-cycle gas, that the hypothesis that CO2 build up is causing the planet to warm, is unquestioningly accepted by participants. If there was any doubt about this scientifically, why would anyone buy into a project to build a grandiose edifice to King Canute? And then, to make it even harder for the really smart types who have set themselves the task of persuading us to do all this, they also have to convince us that a warming planet is a bad thing, ie not a "good thing" (though this has proved easier than anticipated since, perversely, it seems people really love scary stories).

So right on cue, after tabling his "Draft" report last week (which is the update of his March "Preliminary" report and the precursor to his promised "Final" report in September), the Professor confirmed the pre-emptive imperative of such a scheme, by eliciting some gleeful media attention by labelling the unpopular New South Wales Treasurer, Michael Costa, "a well known denier of the science" for questioning the economic sense of the Professor's proposal.

So just what is this thing he calls "the science"? From the introduction to his Draft report it seems he is referring to these computer models of the climate effects of a continued and accelerating build up in CO2 in the atmosphere. These computer models have emerged as great tools for scientists to test complex hypotheses. Economists have been inflicting modelling outcomes on the public for ages and many of us have learnt to treat them with with a little scepticism after watching the annual budget forecasts get continually recast as the actual historical data comes in. We have learnt from experience that tiny tweaks to small variables in these models can make massive differences to the outcomes they project. But now that proper university trained real scientists have models too, and scientists only deal in facts, surely their models will be accurate. It seems you can create devilishly complicated scenarios with thousands of constantly changing variable bits and moving constants to represent a planet's climate, that no human mind could possibly unravel unaided, and yet still produce a precise outcome (42). Even just to enter the data to run one of these economic models of a climate model, you've got to be pretty damn smart, let alone to actually create a model. In fact it seems you're only equipped to run a model if you've had lots of practice with models, and have received high marks for doing models from modellers. This appears to be "the science" that the Professor says the NSW Treasurer is "denying".

It is a bit disconcerting therefore that one of the early things you learn from reading the Professor's "Draft" report is that one of the two main causes of all this excess CO2 in Australia is the poverty busting prosperity that Australia has undergone since Professor Garnaut's farsighted reforms of the Australian economy in the mid to late 1980s. Why is it that there is no mention here of the economic growth and CO2 emission increases that occurred from 1945 to 1975, during the post-war economic boom? Surely if couldn't be the inconvenient truth that global temperatures cooled dramatically in this time frame. To ignore this would be so unscientific for someone who is so in favour of "the science" as Professor Garnaut, that this is scarcely conceivable, unless ... could there be a tinge of hubris here?

You get a vague feeling of unseemliness when you read the Professor's introduction to this "Draft" report, because he does seem to be overtly preening himself whilst discussing Australia's economic performance after 1985. And he is amazingly precise about this too. He attributes exactly half of Australia's contribution to current global CO2 increases, to Australia's good economic performance during this period from late 1980s to the present. This also happens to co-incide with the period following his time as economic adviser to the Hawke and Keating Australian federal governments, when they introduced some pro-market reforms that eventually paid their prosperity dividends to the country.

This is the guy that they want us to trust with engineering the biggest and most complicated piece of centrally planned income redistribution in Australia's history. I confess to feeling slightly uncomfortable about whether he has the character to fairly and dispassionately juggle and make meaningful decisions in the chaos of projections, models, adjustments and tax distortions that he is prescribing for us all, when he takes the opportunity whilst introducing his "Draft" report to slyly buff up his own CV, without telling us. In the process of course he conveniently sweeps under the carpet some of the most troubling contemporary evidence that increased carbon emissions do not increase global temperatures: the fact that global temperature decreased from 1945 to 1975, during the post-war economic boom.

Let's see if we can effectively apply the "Truth bests Justice, Justice bests Freedom, Freedom bests Truth", threalmic process to this vexed climate change issue. There are many confusing and contradictory currents, eddies and whirls in this complicated farrago, so it should lend itself to the process.

Prof Garnaut would say, in fact seems to actually say, that the justice of trying to ensure that future generations do not suffer catastrophic effects from preventable climate change, override our freedom to trade in markets and buy and sell goods and services without undue government intervention, because such profound justice considerations override our desire for freedom to make our own choices.

Others would argue that whether or not such massive proposed intervention is justified depends on whether the proposition that it will achieve what it is setting out to do, abate global warming, is truthful enough to warrant such encroachments. After all, in the Professor's own analysis, the scale of the proposed intervention will impair wealth creation and poverty alleviation by preventing free markets setting resource allocation price signals without distortions. For this to be justified on moral grounds the CO2 link with catastrophic global warming damn well better be true. And even this sets to one side the even more troubling issue, that even if it is true, what possible effect can unilateral action by Australia ,which contributes about 1.5% of world CO2 emissions, have on global climate.

My sense of it is that our scientific understanding of the causative link between CO2 build up and global temperature increase has not been sufficiently established, yet. Most of what the Professor seems to call "the science" in this debate are the modelled projections based on hypotheses that assume a causal link and that its decree of effect on temperature has already been established. My reading of the available and comprehensible science (I just can't seem to get "radiative forcing") on the causation issue (not the modelling) is that the scientific jury remains out on the precise scope and size of CO2 effects on the planet's climate. It seems likely that CO2 has some role to play, but the more recent temperature and emission data of the last 10 years suggests that even with the massive increases in CO2 emissions from the runaway China and India boom, there has been negligible if any increase in global temperature in the same period (the believers say the real temperature effect is currently masked by a La Nina oscillation in the currents of the world's oceans). But the absence of a dramatic temperature increase to correspond with the dramatic build up of CO2 during the last 10 years, does at least suggest that the co-relation might not be linear, and could be something closer to logarithmic, ie increases in CO2 have less and less temperature effects as they build up beyond a certain threshold. In which case any temperature effects from further CO2 build up are likely to be substantially less than the IPPC projections currently suggest. There is considerable scientific literature in both physics and natural science observation to suggest this proposition is being taken seriously by climate scientists. And we are learning quite a lot with all this scrutiny of the climate, in particular that our climate processes might be more robust and complicated than any of the climate models have previously considered.

So, if the truth does best the justice of the Professor's climate abatement proposition, then the proposition looks shaky. There is also some troubling data for greenhouse believers suggesting that there has been little or no increase in the measured temperature in the troposphere over the last 20 years. These troposphere temperature observations seem to directly contradict the greenhouse hypothesis, which predicts a faster warming in the troposphere than at the earth's surface. Maybe the data or the hypothesis prediction is wrong, but either way this anomaly should give open minded thinkers pause before becoming definitive about this.

And even if the truth of the assertions of anthropogenic global warming were not so impaired then, we would still be free to try to refute these assertions with evidence and be able to conjecture alternative hypothesis that better fit the observed climate changes. Freedom bests the assertion that a version of the truth here is the only one.

So it seems everyone can potentially make use of this handy mechanism to make a convincing case for their preferred position. One simply changes the emphasis or the positioning of a proposition from its truth to its justice to its liberation, depending on what opposition or blockages are anticipated or emerge. And, here's the good bit, you can still continue to believe in your own bullshit, even whilst knowing that you are just adopting a process, because whichever posture you adopt it can be legitimately systemically defended, whilst also remaining open to systemic attack.