Economists Trying to Control the Discourse

You would think the situation might call for a revisiting of conventional notions, a moment of introspection, an admission that perhaps past advice may have been not entirely of the finest caliber.

You might think so but, well, no.

David Leonhardt, in an unusually early preview of this week’s New York Times Magazine:

But while Washington has been preoccupied with stimulus and bailouts, another, equally important issue has received far less attention — and the resolution of it is far more uncertain. What will happen once the paddles have been applied and the economy’s heart starts beating again? How should the new American economy be remade? Above all, how fast will it grow?

That last question may sound abstract, even technical, compared with the current crisis. Yet the consequences of a country’s growth rate are not abstract at all. Slow growth makes almost all problems worse. Fast growth helps solve them. As Paul Romer, an economist at Stanford University, has said, the choices that determine a country’s growth rate “dwarf all other economic-policy concerns.”

(Note, the links pasted through from the Times, which continues to have a completely idiotic policy to automatically link irrelevant articles, but that’s a minor gripe compared to this one. Normally I just excise them but I’m too peeved at the moment to bother.)

I admit I haven’t screwed up the courage to read beyond that point as yet. I’m sorry but it appears that I am too feebleminded to be able to understand the point on which the whole lengthy article expands.

Will someone, please, very slowly and patiently, explain to me what it is that is should be growing forever, how it is possible that it can do that (when all other growth processes in nature eventually terminate), and why we need it to do that? Please also explain why that should dwarf all other “economic-policy” concerns, like, say, sustaining a viable planet. I and the other seven billion of us would be most appreciative. Thanks in advance.

Update: Reading on:

For centuries, people have worried that economic growth had limits — that the only way for one group to prosper was at the expense of another. The pessimists, from Malthus and the Luddites and on, have been proved wrong again and again. Growth is not finite.

Which raises another request for assistance. Can someone provide such a “proof”, please? Perhaps that word means something different to an economist.

The rest of the article is not too offensive though it seems a bit oblivious to, well, a lot of things. To be fair I did like this bit though:

He then told a story that John F. Kennedy liked to tell, about an early-20th-century French marshal named Hubert Lyautey. “The guy says to his gardener, ‘Could you plant a tree?’ ” Summers said. “The gardener says, ‘Come on, it’s going to take 50 years before you see anything out of that tree.’ The guy says, ‘It’s going to take 50 years? Really? Then plant it this morning.’ ”

Global Temperature Graph

I am getting Google hits for people searching for “Global Temperature Graph”, but they haven’t been getting what they are searching for. Allow me to fix this.
Recent temperatures:

The instrumental record:

The historical period:

Want longer time periods? Want more info? Want other revealing graphics?

Go to the excellent website , whence these figures are lifted and where they are explained in detail.

Science is Something that People Do

A delightful essay by Dennis Overbye appears in the NYTimes today. 

Science is not a monument of received Truth but something that people do to look for truth.

That endeavor, which has transformed the world in the last few centuries, does indeed teach values. Those values, among others, are honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability and tolerance and indeed hunger for opposing points of view. These are the unabashedly pragmatic working principles that guide the buzzing, testing, poking, probing, argumentative, gossiping, gadgety, joking, dreaming and tendentious cloud of activity — the writer and biologist Lewis Thomas once likened it to an anthill — that is slowly and thoroughly penetrating every nook and cranny of the world.

Nobody appeared in a cloud of smoke and taught scientists these virtues. This behavior simply evolved because it worked.

Highly recommended.

We Need a New form of Outreach

American Thinker has a particularly compelling and polished version of the usual vile garbage, put together in what starts to look like a coherent argument. Of course it is built on the usual foundation of overvalued nitpicking:

“We can’t even believe in “official” measurements, as data sets relied upon to track global temperatures have again been shown to be contaminated and otherwise compromised.”


“Remember the sea ice that doomsters warned would soon be gone? It’s now at the very same level it was in 1979.”

and outright lies:

“this IPCC report, much-hyped-and-hallowed by alarmists and media-drones alike, represents the combined work of only 52 carefully cherry-picked UN scientists”

Unfortunately, amidst all this garbage they score a legitimate political point here. The public’s confidence in the scientific consensus as somewhat understated in the IPCC reports is, by various measures getting worse. That part of the article is not lies.
Although Obama is closely enough connected to the scientific community that he understands the tragic dynamic behind this situation, and although he has a lot of power, he is probably not going to make much of a dent in this situation anytime soon. Yes, green jobs will help, and it does help that people see peak oil as real. The alliance between fossil fuel (especially coal) people and an especially malicious and divisive streak among market fundamentalists goes on. They are not going to make our lives any easier, and so the sort of unmitigated nastiness seen in the American Thinker article is not going away or even abating. Worse, as it triumphantly crows, it is succeeding.
We need to reinvent the relationship between science and the public. That is an absolutely crucial step and it needs to happen fast. This is outside the capacity of NSF, which likes to support what it calls outreach but does so in a structurally ineffective way.

New mechanisms for communication between science and the public are desperately needed.
Dr. Chu? Dr. Holdren? Hello?
Update: Churlish of me to complain on a day when Obama takes such strong positive steps. For which I am grateful; I wasn’t aware this was coming.
And what do you expect of a country where people don’t “believe in” evolution anyway? Still I hate to see these polls headed south and I think it’s an important long-term goal to reconnect (or at least connect) science and society.

Update 1/28: Some related points on a comment by Gavin Starks on Tim O’Reilly’s “Radar” site:

We’re all aware of the emotive language used to polarize the climate change debate.

There are, however, deeper patterns which are repeated across science as it interfaces with politics and media. These patterns have always bothered me, but they’ve never been as “important” as now.

We are entering an new era of seismic change in policy, business, society, technology, finance and our environment, on a scale and speed substantially greater than previous revolutions. The sheer complexity of these interweaving systems is staggering.

Much of this change is being driven by “climate science”, and in the communications maelstrom there is a real risk that we further alienate “science” across the board.

We need more scientists with good media training (and presenting capability) to change the way that all sciences are represented and perceived. We need more journalists with deeper science training – and the time and space to actually communicate across all media. We need to present uncertainty clearly, confidently and in a way that doesn’t impede our decision-making.

On the climate issue, there are some impossible levers to contend with;

  1. Introducing any doubt into the climate debate stops any action that might combat our human impact.
  2. Introducing “certainty” undermines our scientific method and its philosophy.

When represented in political, public and media spaces, these two levers undermine every scientific debate and lead to bad decisions.

A tough nut, indeed.

The Lawnmower Problem

OK, never mind, for the moment, if lawns are a good idea. Let’s consider lawnmowers.

If you have a typical American house, you have a typical lawn in front of it, a lawn that is in need of occasional trimming. Unless you contract out for lawn services, you almost certainly own a lawnmower too. Most likely it has a cheesy, loud, polluting little engine.
You only use this for an hour every other week, or 1/336 of the time. OK, you don’t want people mowing lawns at night, so say 1/168 of the available daylight time. So you and your 167 nearest neighbors own 168 times too many lawnmowers. If you could coordinate your lawnmowing, you would need to spend 1/168 as much on a lawnmower. Similar calculations apply to every other household tool you own that you don’t use intensively in your work or your principal hobbies.
OK, it’s a slight exaggeration for various reasons, but there is no reason 50 people couldn’t share a really good lawnmower except for logistics. Less intensive tool sharing is already happening informally in more civilized neighborhoods on local mailing lists. (“Has anybody got one of those really tall pruning shears?”) Sure enough, people are trying to build web tools to facilitate more effective sharing. ( H/T @timoreilly )
Though it strikes me as possibly overkill, and that perhaps a local mailing list would be more fun, this sort of thing may move the process of substituting relationship for stuff forward.
Now consider that this would reduce the demand for lawnmowers by 98% over the long term, and create a vast oversupply in the short run.
This is part of the trend to substitution of information for materials. Knowing where to borrow a lawnmower is actually better than owning a lawnmower: it saves you some storage. Substituting information for materials decreases impact on the environment; the impact from the manufacture of 49 lawnmowers in this case.
It will also greatly reduce employment in the manufacture of nasty little two- four-stroke engines. According to almost all economists and almost all politicians, this is a bad thing. Obama has as his first priority re-employing all the people who until recently were diligently employed creating, servicing and financing a huge housing glut. The public agrees. They are wrong.
Economists would argue in theory that if a web site or more reliance on mailing lists or even old fashioned community “bulletin boards” (corkboards and thumbtacks) can replace 98% of lawnmowers with a few pennies worth of information exchange, this amounts to creating value.
But it’s value that’s very hard to capture: the people putting up the web site will invest a few hundred hours of effort but not much else, and will probably get by on advertising revenues. The vast bulk of the return goes to the people who don’t have to get new lawnmowers. So in practice, wealth is moved from the money economy back to the informal economy.
GDP goes down. Employment goes down. Collective well-being goes up a little bit but individual well-being of people who make and market little two-^H^H^H^H four-stroke engines goes down. Crisis is declared.
Yet this is exactly the opposite of the behavior that got us into trouble in the first place: the replacement of community with commerce. Isn’t this the sort of “decline” we should be encouraging?
Of course it is no pleasure to lose your main income stream, especially when your savings are crumbling too. The response to this shouldn’t be to “revive” the economy, especially the manufacturing sector which has obviously overproduced. The response should be to make it less of threat to be unemployed: public health care, decent housing and food standards provided for everybody. Losing income should not be an existential threat. Calm, underemployed people can be a huge source for creativity and restoration of the social fabric. Desperate underfed people can’t.
The answer to past overproduction can’t be to bring back the good old days of overproduction.
Don’t work too hard to keep your job. Apply your extra efforts to find out how you can contribute to the informal economy.
Don’t replace your lawnmower. Meet your neighbors.
Relaxation is progress. Take advantage of the Great Unwinding, and unwind.

Via @timoreilly, here’s a discussion of the very topic at hand.

Not about religion

Back when Irene’s Mom used to live in Mississippi and we were in Wisconsin, we’d find ourselves driving through the deep south on occasion. A couple of times I heard some pretty extravagantly strange preachers on the radio. One I’ll always remember said something like

“We have nothing against freedom of religion. Everybody should be free to believe whatever they want, and no religion should get special treatment. But when it comes to the Bible, we aren’t talking about religion. The Bible is the revealed truth of God.”

Based on that, I find it easier to understand evolution denialists than climate change denialists. As far as I know, the Bible makes no specific claims about the radiative or thermodynamic properties of atmospheric trace gases. A pity.

If you find yourself in a position where it is very rewarding to take the Bible literally, though, an unreasonable model of the earth prehistory is pretty much explicitly  included. Once you “believe in” that, it is necessarily the case that great swaths of earth science and biological science are wrong. You are very much seeking the charlatan who will tell you in vaguely realistic terms how and why the science is wrong. It turns out the world has a sufficient supply of shameless and complaint and/or self-delusional PhD’s to provide cover for you if you want to “believe in” science and “believe in” the Bible at the same time.
Having achieved that, you will perceive any person advocating evolution as at best mistaken, but likely evil and probably to be damned to hell. This will be reinforced by their arrogant refusal to consider alternatives to their dire mistake in the classroom and in public discourse.
I see this as all about the dichotomy between how things are decided in science vs how they are decided in politics. In science, not every voice carries equal weight. This makes some people uncomfortable as it seems to go against the tenets of democracy. I think the best answer is Daniel Moynihan’s: “You are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts.” 
Anyway, given the many similarities in tactics, including what seems to us a willful refusal to debate honestly, it’s worth it for us in the climate trenches to pay close attention to the evolution nonsense. One thing that all this makes clear is that there really is a quasi-religious, dogmatic belief that it is impossible that restraint on any human economic activity can be a good idea. This belief is, in some circles, as beyond challenge as the Bible is to a fundamentalist. 
It must be; this can account for their approach to evidence and I don’t believe anything else could. A small number of them must be lying through their teeth (as must some of those testifying against evolution). The number of consciously bad actors may be very small, though.

Live tweeting from Texas Education Board

Following StatesmanEDU on Twitter.

Also, Texas Freedom Network is liveblogging.

11:44 – A creationist testifier:

“Why are we supporting such a theory (evolution) that has no evidence supporting it?”

Also liveblogging the event is TFK (Joshua Rosenau).

Update: Today’s Statesman story

Update 1/22: Here’s the other side, an outfit called the Free Market Foundation.

If the Shafersman quote (which I’ve cringed at before, repeated by the FMF at the above link) wasn’t messed up by the Statesman reporter, he’s not a very competent ally. People who don’t understand science defending science can be an embarrassment and a liability.

Also, here’s some bland TV coverage (may expire; let me know if you find a stale link.)

More: The NYTimes has a good summary of the story.

And today’s Statesman story, despite a couple of glitches (\u2026 is actually Python’s rendition for the ellipsis (“…”) character; hooray for the Statesman running buggy Python) unscrambles a fairly convoluted day pretty well:

The State Board of Education on Thursday rejected efforts to continue to require Texas children to study the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories including evolution. But a narrower challenge to evolutionary theory was approved.

However, the board later approved, 9-6, a motion by board Chairman Don McLeroy, R-College Station, to require students to evaluate the “sufficiency or insufficiency” of scientific theories about common ancestry of different species. The prevalent scientific theory explaining the diversity of species is evolution; creationism is the belief that the universe was created by a higher power.

Details from TFN:

4:23 – McLeroy wants to amend the section on biology dealing with evolution, calling into question common descent through evolution. This is a very bad amendment. Good heavens. McLeroy is a dentist, and he’s trying to argue against the heart of evolution right here. He has absolutely no qualifications here.

4:32 – We’re reeling here. McLeroy has launched a broadside against a core concept of evolution — common descent. This is like an army losing a battle (”strengths and weaknesses”) and then launching a nuclear strike.

4:45 – Good God. It passed. Board members surely don’t understand what they’ve done here. Certainly not all of them. Strengths and weaknesses is out, but McLeroy has succeeded in using the standards to raise doubts about a core concept of biology.

4:48 – The board has voted 9-6 to give preliminary approval to the standards. UPDATE: In the confusion at the end, we missed the final vote count. But the board did give preliminary approval to the standards draft.

5:04 – Time for deep breaths. One: The failure of creationists to reinsert “strengths and weaknesses” into the standards is a huge victory for sound science education. We need to fight to keep it out in tomorrow’s formal vote and again in the final March votes on the standards.

Second: Board members — none of whom are research scientists, much less biologists — appeared confused when they were asked to consider amendments with changes to specific passages of the standards. That’s why it’s foolish to let dentists and insurance salesmen play-pretend that they’re scientists. The result is that the standards draft includes language that is more tentative. Not good, but not necessarily disastrous overall.

Third, and this is more of a problem, McLeroy has succeeded in inserting language that has students waste time evaluating evidence on a concept that is established science — in fact, it’s a core concept in the study of evolution, common descent. What we saw is what happens when a dentist pretends that he knows more about science than scientists.

This is all mighty confusing. The press coverage struggling to establish who the players are and what is at stake in this or that amendment. It’s a difficult task. (It’s a quadruple negative. The science advisory group proposed to 1) strike the pre-existing text calling for the curriculum to investigate  2) “weaknesses” in evolutionary theory; the creationists proposed to 3) amend the recommendation so as to reinstate the language and 4) the majority defeated the amendment to that effect. Then the creationists came up with another way to get creationism into the curriculum which the exhausted moderates let slide, apparently out of inattention or something.

In the end, both TFN and the Statesman are calling it a victory for evolution, but a defeat for “common descent” is a neat trick that seems to achieve the fundies’ purpose in a completely different way. I don’t really like the sneering at the end of the TFN timeline but the declaration of partial victory is nonsense. They are hosed, and the schoolchildren of half the country may be hosed along with them.
FMF is a day behind. Playing close to the vest, perhaps? I call it a stealth victory for fundamentalist  superstition, myself.
The latest article on tfk has interesting points and comments.

how do they propose that anyone analyze and evaluate how natural selection doesn’t apply to individuals but to populations? That’s simply true, and doesn’t require any analysis or evaluation.

Tony Whitson:

it seems to me that McLeroy’s amendment on common descent is so silly that the Board won’t have any problem getting rid of that in March.

Cheryl Shepherd-Adams:

So why would they vote with McLeroy and against the experts on matters of science content?

John Pieret:

I’m sure there is an element of face-saving in the reaction of the Disco Boyz, especially after they’ve spent so much time promoting the “strengths and weakness” ploy, but I’m not at all sure these amendments are small potatos.

Update 1/24: More resources in Millard fillmore’s Bathtub (indeed). The Houston Chronicle’s coverage is here.

Update 1/25: Dave Mann at the Texas Observer sees it pretty much the way I do.