I stopped French kissing. (Coronavirus alert!)

About 40 US deaths so far. The French have double that with 1/5 the population. My skeptical fiber is on full. Still I am washing my hands. When I run out of rubbing alcohol, I will use cheap brandy – of which I have plenty, of course. Oh, I almost forgot: I have decided to stop French kissing completely if the occasion arises! Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures! Count on me. I am wondering what the libertarian response should be to this public crises (plural).

My best to all.

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.

Global Warming and Scholarly Conspiracies, etc. Part Two

In Part One of Scholarly Conspiracies, Scholarly Corruption and Global Warming, I drew on my own experience as a scholar to describe how the scientific enterprise can easily become corrupted for anodyne, innocent reasons, for reasons that are not especially cynical. I argued, of course, that this can especially happen in connection with such big, societal issues as climate change. I concluded that the findings of scientists do not, as a matter of principle, merit the quasi-religious status they are often granted. It follows from this that the Left’s attempt to stop any debate on the ground that science has spoken is grotesque.

I should have added in Part One that at different times in my career, I may have benefited by the kind of corruption I describe as well as having been hurt by it. Of course, one thing does not compensate for the other. Corruption is corruption; it constitutes more or less wide steps away from the truth whether I profit by it or whether it harms me. These things just add up, they don’t balance each other out.

Once you open your eyes, it’s not difficult to find gross derailments of the scientific enterprise. To be more precise, the transformation of limited scientific results into policy often gives rise to abuses. Sometimes, they are gross abuses verging on the criminal.

A recent book describes in detail how the slim results of 1950s studies that were obviously flawed both in their design and with respect to data collection were adopted by the American scientific establishment as policy. They resulted in a couple of generations of Americans being intellectually terrorized into adopting a restrictive, sad, un-enjoyable diet that may even have undermined their health. The book is The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz .

For most of my adult life, I limited my own intake of meats because saturated fats were supposed to give me cardiac illness and, ultimately heart attacks. I often thought something was fishy about the American Heart Association severity concerning saturated fats because of my frequent stays in France. There, I contemplated men of all ages feasting on pork chops fried in butter followed by five different kinds of cheese also eaten with butter. Then, they would have a post-prendial cigarette or two, of course. None of the men I knew exercised beyond walking to shop for pâtés, sausages, and croissants sweating butter (of course). Every time, I checked – often – Frenchmen had a longer life expectancy than American men (right now, it’s two and half years longer.)

Yet, such was the strength of my confidence (of our confidence) in the official medical-scientific establishment that I bravely followed my stern semi-macrobiotic diet even while in France. In my fifties, I developed Type Two diabetes. None of my four siblings who lived and ate in France did. I understand well the weakness of a such anecdotal evidence. And I know I could have been the one of five who hit the wrong number in the genetic lottery. (That would have been the inheritance from my grandfather who died at 26 of a worse illness than diabetes, a German bullet, in his case.) Yet, if there are quite a few cases like mine where siblings constitute a natural control for genetic factors, it would seem worth investigating the possibility that a diet high in carbohydrates is an actual cause of what is often described as an “epidemic” of Type II diabetes. If there are many more cases than there were before the anti-fat campaign, controlling for age, something must have changed in American society. The diet low on saturated fats pretty much forced on us since the fifties could be that societal change.

I am not saying that it is. I am saying it’s worth investigating, with proper design and normal rules of data selection. I am not holding my breath. I think the scientific establishment will not turn itself around until its biggest honchos of the relevant period pass away. Teicholz’s book may turn out to have many defects because she is more a journalist than a scientist. I am awaiting with great attention the rebuttals from the scientific establishment, or – you never know – their apologies.

And then, there is the old story of how it took twenty years for the American Medical Association to change its recommendation on how to treat the common duodenum ulcer after an obscure Australian researcher showed that it was almost always caused by a bacterium. (The story was told about twenty years ago, in Atlantic Monthly, I think I remember. You look it up.)

The de facto scientific establishment is not infallible but it usually wants to pretend that it is. It’s aided in its stubbornness by the religiously inspired passivity of ordinary people who were raised with misplaced all-around reverence for science and anything that appears, rightly or wrongly, “scientific.”

The climate change lobby, wrapped in a pseudo-scientific mantle still thrives in several policy areas in spite of most Americans’ relative indifference to the issue. Two of its main assets are these: First it is well served by irresponsible repetition of a simplified form of its message that amounts to constant, uncritical amplification; second, even well-educated people usually don’t pay a lot of attention to detail, don’t read critically because they are busy.

Now, I am not going to spend any time denouncing the myriad airheads with short skirts who add their own climate change sage commentary to their presentation of ordinary weather reports. (I am a man of vast culture, I listen to the same tripe in three different languages!) As I keep saying, I don’t beat on kindergartners. Let’s take National Geographic, instead, that justifiably respected monument to good information since 1888.

The October 2013 issue presents another striking photographic documentary intended to illustrate fast climate change. One of the photographic essays in the issue concerns, predictably, the alleged abnormal melting of glaciers. The talented photographer, James Balog, contributes his own completely superfluous, judgmental written commentary:

We know the climate is changing…. I never expected to see such huge changes in such a short period of time.

The guy is a photographer, for God’s sake! He has an undergraduate degree in communications. His credentials to pronounce on long-term climate change are…? Even the National Geographic, generally so careful about its assertions, couldn’t resist, couldn’t bring itself to tell him, “This is outside your area of competence, STFU!” Why not let the janitor also give his judgment in the pages of National Geographic? This is a free country after all. Most people simply don’t have the energy to notice thousands of such violations of good scientific practice.

Now to inattention, still with the venerated National Geographic. The September 2013 issue, entitled “Rising Seas” presents a truly apocalyptic future in case global warming is not controlled. As is usually the case with N.G. the article is chock-full with facts from studies. The article is also tightly argued. N.G. is normally careful about what it asserts. To make things even clearer, it offers a graph on pp. 40 -41 purporting to demonstrate a disastrous future for the earth starting very soon.

Being a leisurely retired man endowed with an unusually contrary personality, being furthermore well schooled in elementary data handling, I did the obvious with the graph, the obvious not one educated person in 10,000 would think of doing, or care to do. I took my desk ruler to the graph itself. Here is what I discovered:

Between 1880 and 2013, there was less than a one foot rise in the oceans level according to National Geographic. Of course, those 123 years cover the period of most rapid rise in the emission of alleged greenhouse gases. Imagine if National Geographic had an article entitled:

“Less Than Foot-Rise in Ocean in Spite of More than 120 Years of Greenhouse Emissions”

Many citizens would respond by thinking that maybe, possibly there is global warming but it’s not an urgent problem. Let’s take our time looking into the phenomenon more carefully, they would say. Let’s try and eliminate alternative explanations to greenhouse gases if we find that there is indeed abnormal warming. After all, how much of a rush would I be in even if I were convinced that water rises in my basement by almost one tenth of an inch each year on the average?

This is not an absurd mental exercise. The business of science is to try to falsify and falsify again. When you get interesting results, the scientific establishment (if not the individual scientist author of the findings) is supposed to jump on them with both feet to see if they stand up. Instead in connection with global warming, scientists have allowed the policy establishment and those in their midst that influence it to do exactly the reverse: If you see anything you like in a scientific study, try hard for more of the same. If you find something that contradicts your cause, bury it if you can, ignore it otherwise. You will get plenty of help in doing either.

Scientists have become collectively a complicit in massive anti-scientific endeavor with many religious features.

I am finally proofing the print copy of my book:

I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography.

Sasquatch and Liberal Academe

I have spent thirty years in academia as a teacher and as a scholar. If you count the embarrassingly long periods I was a student, it adds up to much more time. After retiring, I am full of thoughts and ideas about academia. I feel almost no remorse at all but there is a lot of regret in my heart. It’s regret about what I did not do, mostly. Much of it is regret about the times I kept my mouth shut. I also feel retrospective curiosity. Strangely, the curiosity is growing with the years from my last day in academia. Much of the curiosity is about the following issue:

Why do very intelligent, cultured, well-informed people do and say strikingly stupid things?

Before I spout off anymore about academia, I must make clear my position about Sasquatch, the elusive, giant northern American forest ape. It’s sometimes quite unscientifically referred to as “Bigfoot,” or “Big Foot.” Worry not, the two lines of pondering in this essay will soon merge, I can assure you. At any rate, I think there is no Sasquatch. I am sorry that is what I think. I hope I am wrong. I would be glad to turn on a dime on that one, as soon as the evidence warrants.

I have a former colleague, a man younger than I who is a full professor in the best school of one of the best universities in the world. The man is pretty much an academic star. By the way, I am well-placed to know that his stardom is well deserved. It’s not always true of academic stardom. Some academic stars have skillfully manipulated themselves into their reknown on the basis of absurdly inflated modest intellectual achievements. Often, it’s absurdly inflated, thin achievements associated with a super-normal capacity for being seen at academic conferences. (I could name names but this time around, I won’t.) I can’t resist a digression here: It used to be said that Stalin became dictator of the Soviet Union because he would stay after the meetings to sweep the room when the Bolsheviks were illegal. The very fact that it’s possible to fake scholarly star quality at all is a potent sociological commentary on academia in itself. Continue reading