So while it was all hitting the fan in Austin, I find myself in New York City where people don’t know what picante sauce is supposed to taste like, mostly for the purpose of talking about applying the web to the problem of elicitation of expert opinion and formal development of collective wisdom with Paul Baer. This is entirely off budget and outside my formal job description as far as U Texas is concerned, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. (I took vacation time.)
Today I had an interesting conversations with Paul and his colleague Sivan Kartha, who gave me quite a bit more respectful a hearing about the prospects and limitations of climate modeling than I normally get.
It turns out that a well-known climatologist of our mutual acquaintance has said “We’re done”, meaning that physical climatology has essentially nothing more to contribute to the discussion of global change. I said that barring a substantial change of direction which I could imagine but could not envision getting funding for, that I agree. (I exclude geochemists, who have a lot more work to do on the carbon cycles. We also talked about glaciologists a bit. I think the glaciologists are doing fascinating science, but I don’t think they’ll answer the motivating policy questions effectively. Even though the field is suddenly data rich doesn’t mean the question “when will what melt” is sufficiently constrained.)
Climate change policy is not about climatology anymore, as I’ve said here on more than one occasion, and all efforts to make it so are efforts to divert from the much harder questions of what to do about it. All this conversation took place at an amazing and bustling pizza/pasta/pannini/patisserie near Penn Station. I’m grateful to my companions for letting me expound on my opinions, which I have had few chances to express in as much detail.
Then we all took the subway up to Columbia where Paul and Sivan had a meeting with the Nobel prize winning economist Joe Stiglitz who is a professor there (and who was giving a public lecture that evening). Remarkably, my Twitter feed had made me aware of a panel the very same day at Columbia, at which Coturnix/Bora Zivkovic was one of the panelists. So I had an excellent opportunity to keep myself occupied while Paul was busy.
While I was familiar with Bora’s work on the PLoS journals, the other two panelists were new to me. I was very entertained by the idea of treating DNA sequences “like one of those old Texas Instruments TTL chip catalogs” I may have been the only person in the audience who knew exactly what Barry Canton meant by that. A certain shade of bright orange-yellow was activated in my memory. (It certainly revived my confidence that such if such a thing is possible for living beings, it certainly should be possible for a computational model of physics, contemporary boondoggles notwithstanding.) But that’s not the direction I seem to be heading.
I was much more interested in Jean-Claude Bradley’s description of “open notebook” science, which ties in both with the work I am doing with Paul and with some of the ideas I have for extending Sergey Fomel et al’s Madagascar package. In open notebook science, every little step you take is instantly public. Bradley showed how this sort of collaboration can advance chemical science; both contemporary work and ancient out-of-copyright texts can be imported into a vast and multilayered structure. This seems to me the a substantial step in the real world into the sort of science envisioned back in the 1940s by Vannevar Bush. I also see applications of their approach in the world of collective intelligence, but here it might pay me to be a tiny bit closed for awhile.
I also had a brief conversation with the charming Miriam Gordon, who was very taken with my mention of Marshall McCluhan in the context of new media and my question about the future of peer review. (The panel really threw up their hands with a vague hope that peer review might somehow get better someday in the distant future.)
I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed Bora’s talk. He’s obviously a fine writer, but I didn’t expect what an extraordinarily engaging speaker he is. Though there was little in his presentation that was new to me, I enjoyed it thoroughly and highly recommend you give Bora a listen if you ever have the opportunity.
I can’t begin to express how much more productive this day was than my day job in Texas. It’s not just that I had more fun. I meanwhile added more value to the world. (I captured essentially none of the value, though Paul is covering my expenses through a small grant of his.) I have been miscast and I don’t know quite what to do about it. I think I might convince Paul to coauthor some papers to help get me into policy space for real. Cause y’know, blogging “doesn’t count”.
I do know that the answer has something to do with the internet. I would never have met Bora, or Paul, or for that matter Damon Gambuto, Clifford Johnson, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Chris Mooney, John Mashey, Erik Conway, John Fleck, Julia Hargreaves, James Annan and and even (indirectly through Paul) Michael Mastrandrea and Stephen Schneider were it not for this blog, meetings which easily constitute some of the most interesting and encouraging moments of the past two years. (I hope to meet more of y’all in future!)
So then I walked directly from this remarkable event to the next building, home of the business school at Columbia, to meet up again with Paul and to listen to Joe Stiglitz talk about the Great Unwinding. While, to be sure, he was in many ways far more sophisticated than I, it reamined, like most talk by most economists, profoundly unsatisfying to me, in that “growth” was treated as normal and non-growth as pathological. This whole way of thinking still seems divorced from reality.
In any case, Stiglitz made what seemed to be a strong case for nationalizing banks (ironic that capitalism itself will be the first business to be socialized) a strong case for Keynesian expenditures, and a strong case against rescuing shareholders and executives of banks and other companies that are struggling. Those latter he considered “looting”. He adamantly opposes any sort of government action where the government is left holding the bag in case of failure but gains nothing in case of success. That, he said, “is not capitalism”.
He also allowed that things would not go back to “normal” until “demand” reasserted itself, and he could not see how that was going to happen. He believes that the consequences of the recent financial failures will be very long-lasting.
Isn’t it bizarre? Nothing was burned or flooded. How do such things happen? Why is paper more important than physical reality? Anyway, it all seemed so weird to me. Not only did the word “climate” not pass his lips, but not even the word “energy” entered the picture for Stiglitz. Sometimes I wonder if most economists live on a different planet from the rest of us.
In any case, there is little question that I have to be here in the land of bad salsa (try Ollie’s Noodles for some easy on the wallet and the palate consolation. Yumm!) burning vacation time under the terms of Tim O’Reilly’s rule of productivity: “Work on stuff that matters”. It sure would be nice if the stuff that matters didn’t actually compete with the stuff that pays, though. I hope to have more to report to you soon.