Saturday, October 31, 2009

First draft attempt at Argumentum ad Galileus

Let's try it:

Argumentum ad Galileus:

Risum procul Galileus
Rideo procul mihi
Ergo sum tunc Galileus

What I'm trying to say:

The Galileo Fallacy:

They laughed at Galileo
They're laughing at me
Therefore I am the next Galileo

It's not easy trying to write something in a language you don't know, and Spanish isn't as much help as I thought it might be. Corrections greatly welcomed.

Inspired by yet another the-consensus-was-the-Earth-is-flat reference, this time by the Superfreakonomics guys that I'm not writing about anymore (and who are refuted here).

Of course as I finish writing this I find someone's come up with a similar description for something called the Galileo Gambit. They didn't try writing it in really bad Latin, though, so I win.

UPDATE: got the first correction from Steve Bloom, so I've changed the Latin above. I'll keep changing it as corrections come in.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

My last, somewhat contrarian, Superfreaks post

I've got one more post about contrarianism in general, but I'll wrap up on Superfreakonomics.

My contrarian points:

1. They're not picking on the left. Many bloggers speculate that contrarians like picking on the left but not on the right. I don't know about other contrarian authors, but Levitt and Dubner's first book talked a lot about how legalizing abortion reduced crime. Even the current book sympathizes with legalizing prostitution, something that's mostly libertarian/glibertarian, but still probably supported more by the left.

2. Geoengineering with sulfate aerosols is cheap. I've seen a number of assertions that they've left out costs of the stratospheric shield and exaggerated the costs of mitigation. It doesn't matter. As long as you simply examine the cost to cool a certain amount globally, without regard to distribution of heat reduction, or any other side effect, then the shield has to be cheaper than 80-95% greenhouse gas reductions.

3. A limited stratospheric shield for the Arctic might be worth the risks. I believe RealClimate wrote about this idea in a very tentative but not-completely-dismissive tone, but I can't find the link. (Superfreakonomics also mentions it, but they seem not extremely interested.) The Arctic is experiencing so much warming and the atmosphere is somewhat isolated there, so it might be possible, maybe, to counteract the enhanced warming there without the repercussions elsewhere, if the aerosol particles actually stay in that region. It couldn't be done for a few decades until the ozone-depleting chemicals are gone from the stratosphere, but it shouldn't be done anytime soon anyway - this is an act of desperation. (UPDATE: John Mashey points to high-albedo, artificial rafts as a potentially useful "band-aid" approach for the loss of polar ice, and possibly ice elsewhere.)

4. Somewhat less contrarian: geoengineering on a global scale needs to be researched and kept in mind as a last resort for the worst-case scenarios. If 50 years from now we find ourselves on a trajectory to a Lovelock-type scenario involving deaths of billions, or even a somewhat less-bad outcome, then smogging up the earth's stratosphere and hoping for the best might be worth rolling the dice. I think this position isn't all that unusual, even if Al Gore might disagree with it. By contrast, people like James Annan and William Connolley probably shouldn't be interested in geoengineering because they don't think the worst-case scenarios are plausible.
Okay, so much for being generous to Superfreakonomics. I'll just add two points that haven't been discussed too much. First, the authors have occasionally defended the stratospheric shield approach as a complement and not a substitute for carbon mitigation. But if that's the case, why do they keep talking about how much cheaper it is? And the failure as far as I can tell to admit in the book that we need to drastically cut emissions means they're trying to have it both ways - show a radical solution to those not paying close attention, and then running it backwards when caught.

Second, they seem to think it would be easy to determine that that shield isn't worth its side effects and turn it off if appropriate. I'm not so sure. If a powerful country or number of countries reached the point where they felt it was in their interest to smog the stratosphere, I expect they'd be very resistant to arguments that an ongoing drought in Africa means they should cut it out and drastically reduce carbon emissions instead. Just as we see massive foot-dragging today to the idea that we're causing warming, I expect a lot of self-interested denial would occur as to whether it's necessary to gut the shield.

One other point that has been mentioned but is still worth highlighting is this excellent Michael Tobis piece on removing carbon versus interfering with sunlight - two radically different approaches.

Unrelated bonus blogging: soldier fly composting. I get flies in my worm bin anyway, so this might be the solution.

UPDATE: forgot to mention that a critical comment I submitted to the Freakonomics blog was never published. Maybe it just fell through the Internet cracks.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pro-peace, pro-Israel, pro-other-countries, anti-one-state-solution

Matt Yglesias writes about some confusion over the J-Street identity. Some visitors to this alternative to the hard-conservative, militaristic, and uncompromising approach to Arab-Israeli peace had trouble with the label "Pro-Peace, Pro-Israel."

I can't believe and don't believe that they had trouble with the idea of millions of Jews living in this part of the Middle East. While I wouldn't have supported this stupid idea 70 years ago, the ship has sailed and it would be no more just to kick out the modern Jewish citizens than it would be to kick out all the non-Native Americans from North America.

I assume the people having trouble with the "Pro-Israel" phrase don't want to remove the Jews, but rather would merge the Jewish and Palestinian populations in Israel and the occupied territories (plus the Palestinian Diaspora) into a single country, the so-called "one-state-solution". This might be showing my personal opinion somewhat to say that my first reaction on hearing this solution several years ago was, "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." I haven't changed my opinion. Take two peoples who hate each other and leave it unclear who's going to be politically dominant. Just brilliant.

So I don't support that idea and don't think J-Street needs to either. I could call myself pro-Israel, in the same sense that I'm pro-Jordan and pro-Bhutan, and pro-world-in-general. That attitude probably puts me on the far left of the extremely narrow range of political discourse in the US over Israel. It might take me out of the target group for J-Street, which is looking for people who are especially pro-Israel. I think it's fine to be especially pro-Israel so long as that doesn't translate into harming other countries and peoples, and people with Matt Yglesias' attitude can help improve the discourse in the US, to help peace and to help Israel.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Superfreaks latest defense: they weren't answering the most important question about climate change

So they're trying yet again to defend the indefensible at the Freakonomics: now they're saying the 'geoengineering rocks!' chapter is not meant to answer "the most important question" about climate change.

Instead, it's about the best (defined as cheapest, without taking into account side effects) way to cool the earth in a hurry, without considering the long-term effect of your choice of action. They don't quite spell it out to this degree, but that appears to be their question.

They also never spell out why they think this is an interesting question. I think an interesting question is what should we do about climate change. They've instead phrased a question whose answer has no policy implications on this question. There's also many reasons to think they haven't answered their own question correctly, but on top of running away from their contrarian arguments to say they were only looking at this tiny topic, they've come up with an argument that's completely unimportant.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Talking Points Memo readers demand more stenography, less journalism

There's a disheartening comments section attached to a Talking Points Memo story. The story summary: a reporter for the conservative Weekly Standard is trying to nail down whether a moderate Republican running in a special election might switch parties if in the next subsequent election, she loses the Republican primary. The candidate's spokesman fails to answer the question, and instead just keeps repeating that she "is a vote" for the Republicans.

The reporter writes a story about the evasiveness and potential implications of a future switch. Suddenly the spokesman calls in a clarification stating she won't switch.

All this sounds like good journalism to me - not taking an evasive answer on face value, but the TPM comment section is full of attacks on the journalist for not being "objective" and simply reporting the answer. There are a few who defend the journalist, but it generally reads just like something you'd see on a rightwing website (maybe better grammar though).

The left can have as much trouble as the right with seeing past their own biases.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Superfreaking lame response on global cooling issue

The Superfreakonomics publishers are scurrying around and shutting down online access to the horrible chapter on climate change that says "don't worry, but if you do, spew sulfates instead."

Much great stuff tearing it apart has been written elsewhere (DeLong's as good as any here). I'm just going to focus on this accusation:

The chapter opens with the “global cooling” story — the claim that 30 years ago there was a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling, comparable to the current consensus that it’s warming.

Um, no. Real Climate has the takedown. What you had in the 70s was a few scientists advancing the cooling hypothesis, and a few popular media stories hyping their suggestions. To the extent that there was a consensus, it was that there wasn’t much evidence for anything, and more research was needed.

The real purpose of the chapter is figuring out how to cool the Earth if indeed it becomes catastrophically warmer. (That is the “global cooling” in our subtitle. If someone interprets our brief mention of the global-cooling scare of the 1970’s as an assertion of “a scientific consensus that the planet was cooling,” that feels like a willful misreading.)

Okay, let's read what they said in the chapter. Unhelpfully, their publisher has been shutting down online access to what they actually said. You can currently get the entire relevant chapter here, but in case they shut that down, I'm retyping the relevant part below (but before that - Dear Superfreakonomics publisher: I assume you won't even notice my tiny blog, but if you do, I strongly discourage filing a DMCA notice against me. I will most definitely file a counter-notice. Any groundless DMCA notice such as one filed against what your authors describe as a "brief mention" in their book could be construed as fraudulent. I urge you to consult your lawyers instead. Hugs, Brian):

The headlines have been harrowing, to say the least.
"Some experts believe mankind is on the threshold of a new pattern of adverse global climate for which it is ill-prepared," one New York Times article declared. It quoted climate researchers who argued that "this climatic change poses a threat to the people of the world."
A Newsweek article citing a National Academy of Sciences report, warned that climatic change "would force economic and social adjustments on a worldwide scale." Worse yet, "climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for climatic change or even to allay its effects."
Who in his or her right mind wouldn't be scared of global warming?
But that's not what these scientists were talking about. These articles, published in the mid-1970s, were predicting the effects of global cooling.
Alarm bells had rung because the average ground temperature in the Northern Hemisphere had fallen by .5 degrees Fahrenheit (.28 degrees Celsius) from 1945 to 1968. Furthermore, there had been a large increase in snow cover, and between 1964 and 1972, a decrease of 1.3 percent in the amount of sunshine hitting the United States. Newsweek reported that the temperature decline, while relatively small in absolute terms, "has taken the planet about a sixth of the way towards the Ice Age average."
The big fear was a collapse of the agricultural system. In Britain, cooling had already shortened the growing season by two weeks. "[T]he resulting famines could be catastrophic," warned the Newsweek article. Some scientists proposed radical warming solutions such as "melting the arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot."
These days, of course, the threat is the opposite. The earth is no longer thought to be too cool but rather too warm.

So. Standard denialist argument to the effect that scientists were wrong in the 1970s so they're no more likely to be right today. The rest of the chapter then goes on to point the oh-so-easy solution if it turns out that global warming is true.

Going back to Krugman's critique that Dubner calls a "willful misreading," I don't see that at all. Dubner and Levitt portray the media misunderstanding of the state of science in the 1970s as the actual state of science then, and for no other purpose than to downplay current knowledge.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, even in the 1970s the science leaned towards a prediction of warming. Try wiki articles global cooling and history of climate change science for more.

Too bad the Superfreakonomics authors and editors didn't spend a half-hour on wikipedia before writing up their results, and denying the reality of what they wrote now isn't helping.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rush wuz robbed

While I'm not crying tears over Rush Limbaugh getting kicked out of a bid for a football team, I agree with Nate Silver at 538 that he's been unjustly accused of things he never said. I think he's a bad actor who has said many other racially-biased things, (as well as countless other stupid lies, including climate denialism), but I also think shouldn't have been booted out of the bidding group as a non-managing, minority partner.

It's probably worth acknowledging that as a white male, I don't walk in the shoes of people who have been maligned by Rush. On the other hand, he would only be an investor in a business without the power to hire or fire people. I guess it's all a matter of where you draw the line. I personally would never work with him or be part of a business team that includes him, but that's a little different from broader social groups driving him out of a business deal where he wasn't in a position to hurt employees with his biased attitude.

I'm not sure if I completely agree with Conor Friedersdorf's article on the whole issue - while I would only accuse someone of "being a racist" where their behavior is far worse than the societal norm, I think doing or saying something racist is far more common. We've come a long way but have a long way to go on bias in our society. Rather than viewing the statement "what you just said was racist" as equivalent to an accusation of pedophilia, it would be better to examine the situation calmly, decide if it's true, rectify the situation if needed and move on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Would you compromise your purity to stop climate change?

This is my belated contribution to Blog Action Day, to suggest that in addition to one more effort of will that I and everyone else could take to reduce our footprint, we consider supporting things that we might not have otherwise in order protect climate.

My inspiration is a semi-denialist/semi-skeptic website that I comment on called TigerHawk, whose author keeps saying "I'll consider global warming an emergency when the people who tell me it is, act like it's an emergency." Mostly he gets it wrong through attacks on the irrelevant hypocrisies and failings of climate leaders wasting energy in their personal lives (if the charges are even true). A little closer to the mark is when he focuses on policy issues like opposition to nuclear power or to offshore wind farms at Cape Cod.

A persistent claim of denialists is that enviros only believe in climate change to the extent it supports the political beliefs enviros already have, which is about as clear a case of projection regarding their own rejection of science that I can imagine. Still, within a mountain of nonsense there can be a tiny kernel of truth, that a cursory rejection of climate solutions that are politically inconvenient for our side might need some real reconsideration. Maybe carbon sequestration, corporate-owned solar and wind installations on open space, natural gas use, and maybe even nuclear power should be considered more carefully. But that's not what I want to write about....

Beyond the issue of whether solutions we reject actually make sense is whether we can achieve a worthwhile compromise solution that includes components that don't make sense. I doubt nuclear power makes sense in the long run, especially economic sense. I don't see much value in new offshore oil drilling, either. But agreeing to this might be the only way to make actual progress on much more effective solutions to climate change.

So my challenge for Blog Action Day is to suggest it might be okay to be a little bit impure on these issues for something this important. We can then throw the denialist's challenge back in their face: "if we give you some god-awful, massive subsidies for nuclear power, would you finally condescend to stop overheating the planet?"

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Deep thought: fiscal lies versus environmental lies

My day job requires me to critique self-serving environmental analyses that often attempt to obscure the environmental impacts they are legally required to disclose. Sometimes, I also review fiscal analyses of the same proposals (unfortunately not with the same level of personal knowledge).

My impression from that experience and from the national level is that fiscal analyses are even more skewed than environmental analyses.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Reintroducing the Atlantic Gray Whale

One of the disadvantages of the Internet is it destroys any pretensions I have to originality. I've thought for a while that it would be an amazing feat to reintroduce the Atlantic gray whale to the wild. Of course, one complication arises from the Atlantic whale's extinction. The easy solution is to take some of the closely related and now-abundant Pacific gray whales and bring them over.

Turns out that my original idea has been developed much more extensively by other people. Still it would be interesting. I've followed the reintroductions of condors and wolves closely here in the US, and beavers were just reintroduced to Scotland after a longer absence than gray whales from the Atlantic. Sometimes reintroductions don't work well (Mexican wolf, lynx in Colorado), but if you don't try....

There's also the issue that these would still be Pacific grays, and so not exactly the natural species for the habitat. On the other hand, that niche in the Atlantic Ocean isn't being occupied right now, which also isn't natural. Bringing in the Pacific grays seems closer to natural than the present situation. And it would be cool.

Bonus unrelated blogging: Obama reiterates his promise to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. My prediction from months ago that I thought I blogged about but can't find anywhere, is that he'd put off the repeal until 2010 and then use it to run against Congressional Republicans as bigoted and soft on defense. I'll bet he'll put off repealing the more popular Defense of Marriage Act until 2011.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Pressure's on the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce

The San Jose Mercury News published this editorial:

U.S. Chamber is a dinosaur on climate change

Silicon Valley's future, and the nation's, is clean technology....But the U.S. National Chamber of Commerce, which purports to be the voice of the nation's businesses, has turned into a dinosaur when it comes to clean energy. The chamber's strong opposition to climate change legislation makes clear its allegiance to the destructive oil- and coal-based industries of yesteryear.

PG&E took the extraordinary step of quitting the chamber earlier this month because of its "extreme rhetoric and obstructionist tactics." Valley companies and venture capital firms that have been proclaiming green credentials should follow suit. And the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, along with other Bay Area branches, should make it clear that unlike their national umbrella, they look to the future.


The San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce expects to take a position on this by the end of the year, according to Pat Dando, president and CEO. It has had discussions with the U.S. Chamber and the California Chamber as well as PG&E and several other members.

But on Friday, Dando clearly separated herself from the national chamber, saying that "there isn't anyone who doesn't realize that climate change is a man-made phenomenon and something we need to address and address quickly."

She says the position taken by business, legislators and community members on this issue may be the most important legacy this generation will leave for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

She's right.

We hope her organization agrees, and that individual valley companies make their voices heard in Washington — whether through the national chamber or despite it.

I know Pat from my day job, mostly from being on opposite sides on various bad development projects that have been proposed here. Unlike some others, however, she is nobody's fool and is not unreasonable. It will be interesting to see where they go with this - I understand the US Chamber does not like dissent within the ranks.

Another complication is that here, unlike some other cities, there's competition to represent business interests. The Silicon Valley Leadership Group and Sustainable Silicon Valley both have strong business representation and take a pro-environment position. The regional Chamber risks losing influence to these organizations if it doesn't keep up, although the Chamber might also be less influenced by businesses that work primarily through these alternate groups.

Unrelated bonus blogging: Richard Dawkins was in the area last night, promoting his latest book on evolution to an absolutely packed crowd at Keplers in Menlo Park. A very good speaker, but unlike what I've read elsewhere, he seemed fairly combative regarding his assertion that evolution makes God an unnecessary hypothesis.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Richard Freeman, 1935-2009

My wife's favorite uncle, Richard Freeman, died last month. I only knew him for a few years, but he was a very nice guy. His online memorial is here.

One of the great things about relatives is exposure to people and viewpoints you wouldn't normally come across in your regular social life. It's too easy for me to think that a political viewpoint, often shared with a vast majority of friends, echoes an ethical viewpoint. One thing I really appreciated about Richard was how his very conservative politics, so different from me and almost all my friends, came matched with a gentleness that I don't normally consider part of a conservative perspective.

At the memorial website, the family suggests a "random act of kindness" in lieu of flowers. I attempted my random act yesterday: my wife, her sister, and a friend are doing a 3-day breast cancer walk, and I brought a few home-made cookies for them and a bunch more to share with other walkers. The cookies seemed to be appreciated.*

*I would've brought even more but made the rookie mistake of trying to bake some on the bottom rung of the oven. Doesn't matter how closely you watch them, they still burn, and I thought it would be pretty lame for me to hand out burnt-over cookies to people who are walking 60 miles....

Friday, October 02, 2009

Still more companies drop the Chamber of Commerce

So Nike quit the US Chamber Board of Directors on Wednesday in protest of the do-nothing position on climate (although Nike didn't drop its membership entirely). Along with PG&E quitting, two other large utilities, Exelon and PNM Resources, are dropping the Chamber.

This seems to be moving fast, and it will be interesting to see if it keeps happening. I'm sure the corporate interests in the Chamber that support inaction on climate aren't persuaded by any of this, but other corporations that hadn't cared much before might want to start thinking about their own self interest, as the Chamber starts losing significant political and financial capital.

The Chamber's response is a smokescreen statement pretending they'd support a treaty that would somehow get 60 votes in the Senate and that would also force "each nation" in the developing world, no matter how poor and how tiny its per-capita greenhouse gas emission is, into binding reductions. What would be much more interesting than this nonsense is to know what the internal discussions are saying. Time for business journalists to get on it.

As for environmental strategy, I think in the short term at least this incipient crisis for the Chamber supports a quitting strategy over the "stay and fight" strategy I've advocated. Maybe a merger of the two strategies would be for environmentally-oriented businesses to start turning around local and state chapters, though. Another would be for BICEP or a similar group to organize more broadly as a business alternative to the US Chamber, something that might truly scare it.

UPDATE: completely unrelated bonus blogging - Ardipithecus! The link has some good stuff and should have more. I'm sure Afarensis will too. I've seen a few experts question the bipedality claims, so the fur will be flying on that issue.