Global Warming: Take Off My Sweater?

There is a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It contains nothing but bad news, of course. But I am busy with my real life; I have obligations to others; I have to feed myself and shower; I even go to the gym regularly. What to do? Just trust a hysterical sixteen-year-old? (Yes, I mean Greta.)

When someone or something claims that there is, has been, change in something I perceive might be important, I apply the following four quick tests. I do this to decide how much I must attention I should pay to the change news.

1 Source credibility

Not all sources are created equal. Some stink, some have a long record of being reliable. The Wall Street Journal is one of the latter. Almost all anonymous internet sources are not even sources. The National Enquirer will publish anything (although it has had a few remarkable scoops). Normal sixteen-year old girls are only credible when they pronounce on show biz stars or on something related to a skill they have personally acquired, such as piano or gymnastics.

2 Main text: description of process

I scrutinize the description at the heart of the announcement of change though only for a short time. Does the process described make sense? Is it derived in an intelligible way from a study, or studies, that conform to conventional scientific, or other scholarly standards? If no claim is made that they do, they don’t, ever. If there is such a claim, there can still be abuse but there will shortly be a denunciation, in most cases, at least.

3 Narrative around description

Most change descriptions not directly in a scholarly journal come wrapped up inside a narrative. The narrative is often more interesting than the findings to which they are supposed to be linked. That’s intentional but dangerous. Suppose your doctor carefully measures your heartbeat and records his observations. Suppose that then, he gives you a very good lecture on the faults of Social Security. However valid the latter is, it should gain no authority whatsoever from the impeccable measurement of you heartbeat. This is a crude example but people do this sort of things all the time. Do you think climate activist do?

I ask myself how tightly connected the narrative is to the straightforward description of the relevant change? Often the answer is: barely, sometimes: not at all.

4 Gauging critically the order of magnitude of change

Suppose I tell you that I have lost weight. (I could use that.) Courtesy requires that you congratulate me but rationality demands that you ask: How much? If my response is one ounce, you will tend to dismiss my announcement and you will be right. One ounce out of 220 lbs is like nothing. (That’s aside from the fact that it might actually be nothing, a measurement error.)

The mysterious issue of “statistical significance” (that I will resist going into here though I am tempted) is only indirectly related to this matter. A difference between before and after, for example, may be statistically significant but yet, completely unimportant.

The short Wall Street Journal piece (1) covering the publication of the report is rich in narrative and short on figures. (That’s usually the case with climate change announcements, I think.) On rare figure drew my attention:

In the past 140 years -covering most but not quite all of the Industrial Age – global surface temperatures have risen by one (unit) degree Celsius.

To give you a practical idea, that’s not enough of a rise to cause me to take off my cotton sweater, or even to unbutton the top of my shirt. If the temperature rose by only one C between 8 am and noon, I would think something was wrong with the weather! I can easily believe that at this rate, in another 1400 years, it will be ten degree centigrade (Celsius) warmer and, we will still be here. That’s unless something else, something much more likely, like an epidemic. wipes us out. (2) and (3).

As this example illustrates, it may often be wise too reverse the critical sequence described above. Why bother to assess the source credibility associated with an announced change, or the conformity of the description change process to good scientific practice, or check out the attachment of the surrounding narratives to the process in the description, why do all this if the measured change is too small to merit attention?

My more complete ruminations on climate change skepticism are in Liberty Unbound: “Climate Change Denier.”

Endnotes

1   “U.N. Panel Sees Threat to Ocean” – by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal 9/26/19, P. A8.

2     I am well aware that this is a sort of arithmetic average. Surface temperature may have gone up more in some areas and less in others. They may have declined in some places. If the subject is dealt with, it will be in: Watts Up with That.

3      The WSJ accounts implies that the UN report is oddly concerned with fisheries. This is odd because fishermen have known forever that there are warm and cool patches at the same latitude in the oceans. They also know that those shift positions and that the positions of such warm and cool patches affect the movements of fish.

Musings on opinions: de gustibus non est disputandum

A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.

In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:

“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.

Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.

Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).

Let’s continue the “what to eat” comparison since, apparently, the personal is political and recently what I eat seems to be everybody else’s business too.

When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).

Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”.  It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).

This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.

I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.

Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.

By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.

Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my behaviour, accordingly.

If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.

What’s the story here?

If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.

Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.

Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing shit science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.

I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.

Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

History and Philosophy of Science

Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher of science by training, but I occasionally play one in the classroom.

The above playlist is* an excellent overview to the issues surrounding the question, “How do you know?”

I first stumbled into the topic of the philosophy of science (PS) as an undergrad at San Jose State. I was required to take an upper-division general elective class from a list of what seemed like tree-hugging indoctrination courses. I don’t remember what the other options were, but this class was probably the most important class I’ve ever taken.

This spring I taught “Modern Economic Theory” which I twisted into a mix of PS and History of Economic Thought. The biggest lesson I wanted to convey was: there are no right answers, there are lots of wrong answers, and our task is to seek the less wrong answers.

From my syllabus:

I hope to convince you of two big ideas:
1. There are no “right answers” but there are plenty of wrong answers.
2. What we know about the world rests on a foundation of received wisdom. And that foundation isn’t always as solid as we’d hope.

The video playlist above does a nice job of shedding light on how and which science is difficult. There is surely some objective truth to the universe, but it’s bigger than we can fit in our limited brains. Trying to understand our universe requires a heavy dose of humility, lest we impose grand plans that make things worse.


*As far as I know… a) See the disclaimer at the top. b) There’s an inescapable irony here. Science is fundamentally about uncertainty, so even if I was a philosopher of science, I wouldn’t be in a position to guarantee anything. See Feyerabend for more details.

RCH: 10 most brutal massacres in history

That’s the subject of my latest at RealClearHistory (I submitted it before the vicious, anti-Muslim shooting in New Zealand occurred). An excerpt:

7. Chios massacre (March – July 1822). The Ottomans were bad people for a few centuries during the Middle Ages (RealClearHistory has more on the Ottomans here). In 1822, Istanbul massacred 52,000 Greeks on the island of Chios during the Greek War of Independence. The massacre was used deftly by imperial proponents in London, Paris, and Moscow, and further isolated the Ottomans from European diplomacy. As for the inhabitants of Chios, most were apathetic toward the rebellion until the massacre.

Here’s another one:

5. Massacre of the Latins (1182). In the 12th century, Roman Catholics in Constantinople, the capital city of the Roman Empire, were known as Latins and in 1182 they were slaughtered, driven out of the city, or sold into slavery. Tens of thousands of people are estimated to have died. The massacre occurred because the vast majority of non-Roman Catholic inhabitants were much poorer than the Latins of the city, due to the latter’s connections to the wealthy city-states on the Italian peninsula (Venice, Genoa, Pisa, etc.). The massacre also made it harder for the Pope to unify the Christian world, as the split between Catholic and Orthodox sects only became more hardened.

Lots of bad things have happened in Turkey and Greece and over the years. Please, read the rest. There’s more massacres, but also thoughts on the genocide-versus-massacre debate, and the sheer lack of knowledge that humanity possesses in regards to its own history.

Nightcap

  1. The marvel of the human dad Anna Machin, Aeon
  2. No exit? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  3. Big Water and Latin American borderlands Benjamin Nobbs-Thiessen, H-Borderlands
  4. The material power of ideas and knowledge Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber

A long read

According to Instapaper this article at Wait But Why is a “139 minute read.” And it was time well spent.

It’s about a new Elon Musk venture, Neuralink, but there’s plenty non-Musk stuff in there of interest. I’m agnostic on whether Elon Musk is or isn’t the next coming of the (anti-) Christ. What’s really interesting is the background material this article gives, building up a highly entertaining natural history of knowledge. The section below really captures the main thrust of that story, but it’s worth reading anyways.

minimal tribal knowledge growth before language

And this:

That leads into a discussion of how brains work, that “soft pudding you could scoop with a spoon.” Here are some excerpts:

I’m pretty sure that gaining control over your limbic system is both the definition of maturity and the core human struggle. It’s not that we would be better off without our limbic systems—limbic systems are half of what makes us distinctly human, and most of the fun of life is related to emotions and/or fulfilling your animal needs—it’s just that your limbic system doesn’t get that you live in a civilization, and if you let it run your life too much, it’ll quickly ruin your life.

And…

Which leads us to the creepiest diagram of this post: the homunculus.

The homunculus, created by pioneer neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, visually displays how the motor and somatosensory cortices are mapped. The larger the body part in the diagram, the more of the cortex is dedicated to its movement or sense of touch. A couple interesting things about this:

First, it’s amazing that more of your brain is dedicated to the movement and feeling of your face and hands than to the rest of your body combined. This makes sense though—you need to make incredibly nuanced facial expressions and your hands need to be unbelievably dexterous, while the rest of your body—your shoulder, your knee, your back—can move and feel things much more crudely. This is why people can play the piano with their fingers but not with their toes.

Second, it’s interesting how the two cortices are basically dedicated to the same body parts, in the same proportions. I never really thought about the fact that the same parts of your body you need to have a lot of movement control over tend to also be the most sensitive to touch.

Finally, I came across this shit and I’ve been living with it ever since—so now you have to too. A 3-dimensional homunculus man.17

This is too far outside my area of specialization to say, but it’s certainly an entertaining read that seems to fit with what I know about these topics (although the section on neurology could be made up as far as I know).

From there it builds up to the moon shot idea Musk apparently has in mind: building the core technology for a high bandwidth mind-computer interface. This would be the ultimate logical extreme of a trend towards better interfaces that’s been going on since before punch cards. If you think over the natural history of knowledge, it becomes clear that this idea is ultimately just a few dozen steps further down a path we’ve been on for billions of years.

And the implications of taking it that far are profound. The pros and cons of that power are huge. Consider how much more powerful your brain is with paper and pencil than without. Or a computer. Or a computer with a GUI and a copy of Excel. Once you can plug into your computer Matrix-style, all those awesome hot keys that let you zip through your computer like a pro will be like roller skates next to a rocket sled. And the two-way link would mean we could genuinely exercise some self control… for example,  by running a computer program that zaps you when you eat too much chocolate cake.

Readers of this blog will hear Hayek warning you! Such a device gives you a lot of power to manipulate a complicated thing in ways we may never be able to understand.

But this type of personal power might be a necessary bulwark against government or corporate power. Network externalities have already locked us in to Google and Facebook. A Byzantine government has created rent-seeking opportunities that puts enormous power in the hands of the politically connected. The NSA is terrifying. And machine learning will continue to get better, giving those entrenched players even more ability to understand and manipulate large numbers of people. (I’m not endorsing this forecast, just listing it as a possibility.)

In any case, even if Neuralink is just an April Fool’s joke I missed out on till now, this article provides a theory of knowledge that’s well worth reading.

In the near future I’ll argue why you need such a theory of knowledge. Stay tuned.

The Roots of Truth and the Roots of Knowledge

John Oliver raises a Hayekian point on the roots of knowledge:

Just because they believed you and you believed them, doesn’t make it true! This isn’t like Peter Pan where believing in fairies will keep Tinker Bell alive. This isn’t a magic thing Peter, she has Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

He’s rightly picking on Donald Trump, who has a) been a particularly bad epistemologist, and b) should be held to a higher standard because he’s the president.

But the truth is that we’re all in the same boat: we believe what we hear from what we believe are reputable sources (because we heard those sources were reputable from sources we believed to be reputable). Most of our knowledge we take on faith from other people. In essence, we can’t simply know the truth in a vacuum; we depend on the context created by our culture, language, and personal experience. It’s only by trusting others that we can stand on the shoulders of giants.

What’s so special about science is that the standards are higher than in other domains. Knowledge has been carefully curated over generations by fallable humans engaged in a particular subculture of society. To the extent science makes good predictions, it creates value in society, and to the extent it can verify and capture that value, its practitioners get funding and get taken (mostly) seriously by the educated public.

You might notice that there are many places where science can go wrong. And the history of science is replete with blind alleys and shameful episodes. But also glorious advances in our knowledge, capability, and humanity. The same is true of all areas of life that deal with knowledge from politics and journalism to how you clean your kitchen. To the extent we see both competition and cooperation (in a variety of institutional forms) we will tend to see knowledge and truth converge. (I think.)

In this respect, we’re all, essentially, in the same boat. We should expect fallability and adopt a humble attitude. As surely as I want to believe John Oliver’s portrayal of current events (most of the time), I’m not about to fly to DC to check things out for myself.

Because, this isn’t about belief, it can’t be… Faith and Fact aren’t like Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. When you confuse them it actually matters. Real people get hurt when you make policy based on false information.

We face trade offs when it comes to knowledge. Received wisdom might be correct enough to operate a bed and breakfast. But we’ve created real fragility in our political system by vesting so much power in the White House. It means that the standard of truth has to be so high that not even a crazed billionaire hell-bent on becoming president (a segment of society usually celebrated for their levelheadedness!) can be trusted to pursue.

Let me sum up:

  1. Our knowledge is always based on the trust we place in others. As such we can be more or less certain about any thing we might know. I am very certain (0.99×10^-100) that gravity exists and keeps me rooted to the earth, but less certain (0.05) that I am organizing my bookshelves correctly.
  2. We can, and do, have different standards of truth in different areas of our lives. I don’t make any important decisions that don’t account for the severity of gravity. But I’m not going to sweat it if I put a new book on an inappropriate shelf.
  3. We absolutely need to hold our government to very high standards. Nuclear weapons are scary, but lesser powers also call for very high standards. The level of certainty I’d insist on for nukes is at least an order of magnitude higher than the level for regulating pollution. But the level of certainty for the latter is orders of magnitude higher than might be possible under alternative arrangements.
  4. At the same time, we have to accept our own fallability, particularly when it comes to our ability to accurately know the truth. But that’s no reason to be nihilistic; it should inspire a striving for constant improvement in general (while making the appropriate trade offs on the margin).