Coherence

Eli is going on about incoherence of the denialists . Things Break had a sighting in the comments here recently:

In reading past comments at Dot Earth, or by either Spencer or Christy (I can’t remember which), I don’t understand where the myth that those who seek to avoid the worst aspects of climate change are callous towards the rights of those in poorer nations comes from.

A few years back, the smear was that we wanted to funnel the hard-earned tax dollars of white Christians to the brown third world as part of a massive Red Conspiracy. I’m curious as to when this newer meme started and why it seems to have taken hold despite it’s obvious conflict with the older one.

I have been doing some thinking about how to tell real experts from fake experts. A single sound bite (on a topic on which the listener is inexpert) reveals nothing. You have to look at the whole record of the speaker and the speaker’s close allies to determine who is an expert and who is playing one on TV. The “tell” is coherence. The core problem is that people who pay insufficient attention and people who don’t themselves understand coherence have influence, especially in a democracy.

Many people don’t seem to understand that ideas have to be tested for coherence and have to pass the test. Refusing to do interviews is not a laughing matter; it simply declares immunity from any coherence test at all.

Jane Smiley has a terrifying rumination about the incoherence of the American “conservative” movement here. For what it’s worth I don’t think it’s conservative at all. I’m a dyed in the wool Trudeau Liberal myself, (I’m a Montreal Texan and I ain’t fixin’ to start changin’ now) but I respect and draw upon conservatism that actually conserves things. One of the things it ought to conserve is intellectual rigor.

In the end, Ross Perot’s position on just about everything was the right one. “I don’t know everything. I’d just get the experts together and have them hash it out. Then I’d figure out how to get it done.” The trick is being able to identify the experts. So you have to be able to demonstrate that you yourself understand the coherence test, and the best way to do that is to be coherent.

Changing your mind is one thing; within reason it is a good sign, a sign that you don’t operate dogmatically. Saying two things simultaneously that can’t possibly both be true is another. Coherence is important because it is the sign of actual thought.

Consequences for getting it wrong?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were consequences for a journalist garbling a story?

“MIT scientists baffled by global warming theory, contradicts scientific data”

In the pre-Web 2.0 days, this would have gotten no notice, but now it’s getting “Dugg” up. The story reads in part:

The two lead authors of a paper published in this week’s Geophysical Review Letters, Matthew Rigby and Ronald Prinn, the TEPCO Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science, state that as a result of the increase, several million tons of new methane is present in the atmosphere.

Methane accounts for roughly one-fifth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, though its effect is 25x greater than that of carbon dioxide. Its impact on global warming comes from the reflection of the sun’s light back to the Earth (like a greenhouse).

Ah. So what with the 25x greater effect, its effect must be 25 x greater, right? Or should that only be 5x greater, since it’s only “one fifth of greenhouse gases”. Or should it be 1/5th, because the factor of 25 is already accounted for? (Hint, that last one is closest, but what was that about water vapor?)

Open loop systems fail.

This is what all those free-marketeers, in their narrow little way, are trying to tell us. If journalists get no correction for getting things wrong, they will continue to get things wrong, and the public will continue to be confused. Feeling themselves barraged by streams of contradictory nonsense, what choice to they have but to “go with their gut”?

The throwaway article in an (I suspect) not especially important tech website is getting passed around, based on the reporter’s deep understanding and coherent explanation of the story, right? Or perhaps it is because of the conclusion:

One thing does seem very clear, however; science is only beginning to get a handle on the big picture of global warming. Findings like these tell us it’s too early to know for sure if man’s impact is affecting things at the political cry of “alarming rates.” We may simply be going through another natural cycle of warmer and colder times – one that’s been observed through a scientific analysis of the Earth to be naturally occuring [sic] for hundreds of thousands of years.

No need to blame that crap on the innocent researchers. Just one more writer writing about something he doesn’t know as if he does. Just one more tiny bit of intellectual poison, that’s all, just a little bit more. Yummm. Open wide…

Update: Watt’s Up runs with it.

Public Talk (by me): Ethics of Carbon

I’ll be speaking at the Ethical Society of Austin this Sunday, November 2, on “The Ethics of Carbon”.

The Ethical Society is a humanistic religious organization dedicated to personal ethics and reason, committed to the idea that each individual has inherent worth and dignity and inspired by the ideal that the supreme aim of human life is working to create a more humane society. I’m an active member of this group.

Coffee and pastries are served at 10:00 a.m. The meeting starts at 10:30 a.m. The location is at the Austin Museum of Art campus at Laguna Gloria, which is at the cul de sac at the very western tip of 35th Street in central Austin (shown as ‘Bull Creek Rd’ on this Google Map).

After the meeting there is a social hour. This is a time for visitors, friends, and members of ethical culture to get to know each other better. We clump together into smaller groups where we continue to discuss the day’s program, catch up with each other’s lives, or simply engage in pleasant conversation over a potluck lunch.

What I’m going to talk about is the ethical implications of global warming for our lives, if we assume that what climate scientists are saying is correct. For what it’s worth, I do believe what climate scientists say is essentially correct, but defending that is not the point of this platform.

I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding of what the global warming situation implies for how we will live in the future. I think it’s fundamentally an ethical question, and inescapably a political one as well. It’s also complicated. It’s both daunting and fascinating.

A crucial point is that we can’t solve this as individuals, with “personal virtue” alone. As Al Gore said at his Nobel lecture:


“There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We need to go far, quickly. We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action.”

Of course, collective action often goes wrong, and we can’t afford too many mistakes on this scale!

There are two main questions in thinking about global warming; whether the scientific basis of this way of thinking about nature is basically correct is one of them. That gets most of the attention but that’s not the topic of this platform. The topic at hand is: presuming it is true, what are the implications, especially the ethical ones? There are a few more inconvenient truths that politicians and the press don’t like to mention but that need some attention.

Visitors are welcome, and there will be time for discussion. I’d appreciate an RSVP from anyone coming on account of this blog posting. I’ve got a few readers in Austin and the I-35 corridor according to the logs that I haven’t met. I’d be delighted to make your acquaintance.

What’s Good for America

It used to be said that what’s good for General Motors is good for America, but in those days nobody expected it would come to this: General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC), the people you had your car loan with the last time you bought a GM car (back before that string of Volvos and Toyotas, remember?) is trying to get itself declared a bank so it can get cut in on Mr Bernanke’s trillion dollar bank bailout.

This is a silly way to save GM and its jobs. Remember we have two crises on our hands, both caused by economic excesses, operating on different time scales; the one financial and the other environmental.

I’ve been despairing of making lemonade out of these two lemons, but my good friend Howie Richey has pointed a way out of this thicket. What we should be doing is to tell GM they can’t be a bank, but we’ll give them a $10 bn contract to develop carbon neutral transportation, please and thanks.

Then maybe what’s good for America will be good for General Motors, for a change.

Failure of Networked Systems

This article, “The Failure of Networked Systems”, on The Oil Drum explains matters very well.

It is sort of an engineer’s twist on the tradeoff between risk and return. Go read it.

It applies both to the immediate financial mess and the even bigger picture reservoirs-and-flows views of the earth system.

What I have to add is this:

The current financial disaster is based on people deluding themselves that they had eliminated risk, when in fact they had coupled risk. The consequence is that small failures were avoided at the expense of big failures.

The whole setup of modern human activity makes a comparable error. There is no such thing as unlimited growth. All growing systems reach limits. The most casual understanding of exponential growth (h/t HR) makes this clear.

Either fuel supply or carbon waste are likely candidates to be the limit we hit first, but there are others. It doesn’t matter. The “growth forever” idea is really “growth until it stops”. If we base everything we do and everything we think on an assumption of growth, we start to build things in to protect the growth.

Much of government of the past century has been about protecting the growth. Sooner or later it is doomed to fail.

Has this just happened? Has the system reached old-fashioned bubble-popping so emphatically and so hard upon its physical limits that we will be unable to right it? Maybe, but probably not.

The problem is that righting it is not what we need to do. What we need to do is relax.

What we will inevitably try to to is rebuild the tightly coupled growth-dependent system that has spectacular failures built into its whole M.O. Realistically, some of this is unavoidable at this stage, but it’s an ill-timed distraction. What we ought to do, instead, is reduce growth dependency and increase redundancy and resilience.

We need to convert to a world where less wealth gets created, and less wealth gets destroyed.

This is the relaxation scenario; it is easier on everybody, but it will take some creativity. In a perceived crisis, can we find the creativity to say, “no, we don’t particularly want things to get back to normal”?

Resilience, not growth, is the goal of our time. We need to build a world where time to think and time to enjoy and time to care is valued more, where time to achieve and money to spend is valued less. Say you don’t want no diamond rings and I’ll be satisfied. Tell me that you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy.

Trying to find sustainability in conventional economics at a time of stress is a category error if ever there was one. This mistake has its precedents and they are not encouraging.

What Color Lining?

Just before we realized just how gobsmackingly stupid the people who manage contemporary financial institutions managed to be, I pointed out the upside of the incipient recession. Simply speaking, the first step to a sustainable system is an average growth rate of zero. Since we don’t control growth perfectly, that means that what has heretofore been called “recession” is what we need about half the time (or more, if the growth phases are especially vigorous).

Of course, all of this depends on the question of what it is that is actually growing, a question which is far less trivial than is normally considered. The countereconomists have this part right in a fuzzy sense, with a tautology I = P A T. Unfortunately for the utility of the equation, the “P” is the only term which is really measurable all that well. It’s easier to think in terms of dollars and carbon intensity; then the comparable equation is

delta-C = population * income * carbon_intensity

And, alas, the target delta-C is slightly less than zero! Go build an economic model on that!

So although there is something to be said for a gentle slowdown, the greenhouse problem doesn’t stop worsening in a recession. It only stops getting worse at an increasing rate!

Anyhow, the idea of a relaxation is necessarily a gentle and calm period in contrast to a period of decay and decline.

It is looking very much like what we have is not a gentle slowdown, though. The great spike in gasoline prices has been followed by a great plummet; we are down about 40% here in Texas in the last six weeks and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a pump pricve below $2 soon… This surely represents a great decline in demand. Now, in the grand scheme of things, fewer people driving around great distances for little substantive reason is probably a good thing, but because of how we’ve set things up, these people will be abruptly overcommitted and somewhat desperate.

So the fact that we need enormous capital investments to manage the infrastructure switchover to whatever it is we are switching to is getting swamped by the the habitual short-term focus that people have become accustomed to. Nobody in power is thinking about wind farms, CO2 pipelines or nuclear plants now. We have jumped right from overwork into panic without passing through relaxation.

So I see the lining, I just don’t think it’s silver.

We always knew the system was addicted to growth, and that readjusting to a non-growth world would be difficult. What we didn’t understand was that the addiction had progressed to the hard stuff, that even a few months of decline would cause chaos to ensue.

Greenies, even responsible and stodgy folk like Gore and Hansen and Pauchari, (yes I most emphatically do mean that, what a world where Gore is cast as a radical!) have been saying everything rides on the next few years. Well, like Greenspan, I fear they have “made a mistake”.

Thanks to Mr. Greenspan’s little oopsie we have lost a few years if we are lucky. Probably a decade. Governments will have their hands full just keeping the boat afloat and will have almost no power to steer it. I hope I’m wrong, but it sure doesn’t look that way.

So now we have to hope nobody remembers the “now or never” rhetoric of the past few years, because if it’s now or never, it sure as hell looks like never.

Nope, that lining color isn’t silver. Nosiree.

Relaxation, as I should have known, is out of bounds. Times only come in drunk or hung over anymore.

Update: Dear old friend D asks in email what I meant by that last statement. Maybe I should have said times only come in manic and depressed anymore. Is that clearer?