Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Libertarians Big Fail

Friday, November 4th, 2016

If there were ever an election year when the Libertarian Party could make significant gains, this is the year.

The Bernie Sanders campaign caught fire and inspired a new generation of young people and rallied a cohort of progressives frustrated with eight years of cautious Obama politics.

Many of Bernie’s most ardent supporters were looking for a new champion when Bernie failed to win the nomination.

Donald Trump’s xenophobic populism abandoned traditional Republicans and their concerns about fiscal conservatism and government overreach.

The contest between Clinton and Trump quickly became a personality referendum. Issues took a back seat to an endless cycle of school-yard taunts, shocking revelations of personal weakness, and a deeply disturbing lord of the flies “kill the pig” frenzy.

Libertarianism had the perfect opportunity to assert its simple philosophy that people are perfectly able to make their own decisions and better decisions will be made if people are allowed to experience the consequences of their actions.

This also applies to governments. The world would be a better place, libertarians contend, if governments were less concerned with individual rights and more concerned with national defense.

So why is the Libertarian Party polling at less than 5% of the total vote?

My sense is that when push came to shove, the libertarian faithful including big money sources like David Koch, failed the Trump test.

Trump successfully turned this election into a reality show. Clinton became the villain. Trump became his own hero. His whole campaign is an effort to fan the flames of tribalism by drawing clear lines between us and them. Facts took a beating as every event was re-interpreted within the context of how “they” were biased, crooked, and untrustworthy and “we” were the only choice to save the nation from “them”.

The media, every established political party, the Clinton campaign, and the public have been challenged to respond.

The Libertarians had the opportunity to demonstrate that their philosophy was a better way.

Instead, their leaders and their followers could not resist the temptation to participate in this personality contest in hopes of attracting those who claimed that they disliked BOTH Trump and Clinton.

The issues with Clinton and the FBI are a perfect example. Early on both Johnson and Weld agreed with the FBI’s recommendation not to prosecute. This was consistent with the philosophy that individuals are smart enough to make their own decisions and don’t need government’s help. But when the FBI reopened the investigation, Weld was the only one who continued to stand on principle suggesting the FBI was “off the reservation”. Johnson followed Trump’s line in an effort to pick up some disheartened Clinton supporters. Weld on the other hand received the full wrath of the libertarian faithful.

On social media sites it is hard to distinguish the Trump trolls from the libertarian trolls when it comes to flaming anti-Clinton posts.

The challenge libertarians have always had is walking the talk.

Here’s a classic example from a book by a behavioral economist. The University of Chicago is a bastion of libertarian economists. Milton Friedman was their leader. When the University built a new office building for the economics faulty, there was the obvious challenge of how to allocate office space. Rather than setup a marketplace which would have resolved the issue using the principles that each of these academics spent a lifetime promoting, they essentially appointed a bureaucrat. He created a formula based on things like tenure, seniority, and individual contributions to the institution. That same person then applied the formula in a controlled fashion in an effort to reduce conflict. At the moment when these leaders of libertarian thought could actually put their theories to the test in their own lives, they trusted a government solution.

There are a lot of voters in this election cycle looking for a better choice. Libertarianism failed to gain their votes because libertarians lost track of their major asset which is their simple set of principles. Instead of demonstrating how principles can overcome tribalism, they became just as tribal, just as intolerant, and just as opportunistic as everyone else.

Who is John Galt?

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016

quote-the-american-businessmen-as-a-class-have-demonstrated-the-greatest-productive-genius-and-the-most-ayn-rand-349733

 

The Republican Party is struggling to come to grips with the fact that their “base” is no longer loyal to their “principles”. Even worse, the one leading these people astray is a businessman who should be poster boy of what the party principles say all should aspire to.

The party clearly has two choices. They can either reflect more deeply on how their “principles” apply to those they seek to lead, or they can blame this wayward band and their leader as apostates.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that the conservative Republican establishment response is that the working class who are the core of Trump’s support can only blame themselves for their situation and their leader is not a true conservative.

At the core of this dilemma is the Randian Objectivism that has become the bedrock philosophy of mainstream conservatism. It was reflected in Romney’s claim that 47% of 2012 voters would never support him because they were dependent on the government. Paul Ryan famously described the social safety net as “a hammock the lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency”.

Rand’s prototypical hero is the businessman, John Galt. He criticized any state intervention in society because it allowed poor people to leech the hard-earned wealth of the rich (sound familiar?). Conservative Establishment Republicans use this philosophy to absolve themselves from any responsibility for their own actions by claiming a sort of social Darwinism. They claim that the outcome of any individual’s life is purely a function of their willingness to overcome any adverse circumstance they encounter with ability and intelligence. Helping those that are in need only prolongs their struggle. They point to their own success as evidence of their piety to this principle without acknowledging that in most cases it was the result of an advantageous birth.

Paul Krugman does a wonderful job of summarizing this attitude.

Stripped down to its essence, the G.O.P. elite view is that working-class America faces a crisis, not of opportunity, but of values. That is, for some mysterious reason why many of our citizens have, as Mr. Ryan puts it, lost “their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” And this crisis of values, they suggest, has been aided and abetted by social programs that make life too easy on slackers.

What science tells us, however, is markedly different. The basic cause for the social dysfunction in the black community in this country is not some genetic inability to form strong family bonds. It is the result of systematic elimination of economic opportunity. To paraphrase a Baltimore resident, it is unreasonable to expect people to demonstrate middle class values in the absence of middle class jobs.

What we are now seeing are the same social ills that have been associated with the black community, showing up in the white working class community — addiction, violence, crime, single parent families, chronic disease, increased suicide, and shorter life expectancy.

That in and of itself should not be surprising.

It also should not be surprising that those who are suffering from decreasing economic opportunity and collapsing social stability are both angry and afraid.

What is surprising, however, is that though this phenomena is present throughout the industrialized west, only the US is suffering a rise in mortality among middle-aged whites. Everywhere else mortality continues to trend downward.

Why are things different here?

Paul Ryan and the self-serving conservative Republican elites have successfully used Randian Objectivism to dismantle much of our social safety net. Every other western industrialized country has robust systems to help workers manage the transitions during these sorts of economic disruptions. The result of our purposefully frayed social safety net is not a robust new generation of John Galt’s freed from the shackles of dependency, but a surly terrified generation of workers who have finally realized that they are being exploited and are no longer willing to take the blame.

The delicious irony is that the man leading this populist revolution bent on overthrowing the Republican Objectivists is the epitome of Randian self-responsibility. He is supposed to suggest that those who are struggling just need to be more responsible and work a little harder. Instead his whole career has been built on a false promise that Trump’s success was contagious. It would rub off on you if you just purchased one of his products, visited one of his properties, or watched one of his reality shows. Rather than lecture the disgruntled white working class, he agrees that they have received a raw deal. Rather than suggest that they are responsible for their own success, he blames the current political establishment (Republican and Democratic) for making bad deals that have disadvantaged workers. He promises his followers that he will be able to relieve their pain by replacing those bad deals with good ones that he will negotiate on their behalf.

FDR recognized the same thing. The Great Depression decimated the economy because unregulated capitalism ran amok. FDR made a new deal with workers. Rather than replace capitalism, he proposed a new mixed economy — strong business constrained by a strong government. Government will also construct a social safety net. That safety net would allow workers to retire with some dignity when they grew too old for physical labor. It would also mitigate the pain of individual job loss when economies contract or individual companies fail.

After the biggest economic constriction since the Great Depression, workers are again stressed and angry about the abuses of big business and the failure of the government to live up to its promises.

Donald Trump claims he can deliver a better deal. His ability to convince workers that this is possible is testimony to the level of their desperation as well as his talent as a con man.

But it is also fascinating that when faced with the choice between channeling John Galt or FDR, he chose FDR.

The Six Stages of Denial (Thanks to Michael Mann)

Sunday, February 14th, 2016

melting ice

The purpose of this post is to provide some science to back the standard set of climate change denial arguments that have been used by those who question climate science.

1. CO2 is not actually increasing.
Humans release roughly 29B tons of CO2 in the atmosphere every year. Vegetation and oceans absorb only 57%. Current CO2 levels are the highest in 15M years.

CO2_Emissions_Levels_Knorr

2. Even if CO2 is increasing, the increase has no impact on the climate since there is no convincing evidence of warming.

There are ten indicators of a warming planet

  • Land surface air temperatures. This may be the least reliable data because of a number of local affects that could influence the accuracy of the instruments.

Anderson12Fig1 surface temps

  • Sea surface temperature. Lots of data going back to 1850 with the most recent decade as the warmest

ocean heat content

  • Air temperature over the oceans.

marine1

  • Lower Troposphere temperature. Measured by satellites for 50 years. Every decade since 2000 is warmer than the previous one.

troposheric

  • Ocean Heat Content – 90% of the heat from climate change is being absorbed the by the ocean which is causing the sea levels to rise.

ocean_heat_content #2

  • Sea Level Rise.

Sea-Level-1

  • Specific Humidity

humidchart

  • Glacier retreat – now 25 consecutive years of net loss of glacier ice.

glacierbalance

  • Northern hemisphere snow cover.

nhsnowcover

  • Arctic sea ice

ArcticSeaIceMinimumCoverage


3. Even if there is warming, it is due to natural causes.

EOS_ChapmanDavis2010

This graph, though a little wonky, demonstrates that we have already exceeded the limits that could be attributed to natural variability. Basically all of the warming details listed above require some other source of warming besides natural causes.

4. Even if the warming cannot be explained by natural causes, the human impact is small, and the impact of continued greenhouse gas emissions will be minor.

evidence_CO2
Here’s another example of the human fingerprint. We are producing more CO2 than the earth can consume. The result is that the concentration of that gas in the atmosphere is going up dramatically.

5. Even if the current and future projected human effects on Earth’s climate are not negligible, the changes are generally going to be good for us.

brook_impacts

The impacts of climate change are making things worse for biodiversity.

6. Whether or not the changes are going to be good for us, humans are very adept at adapting to changes; besides, it’s too late to do anything about it , and/or a technological fix is bound to come along when we really need it.

The most immediate and available technical solution is to stop releasing CO2 into the atmosphere and replace fossil fuels with non-polluting alternatives. If we simply stopped pumping oil today, we would have a change to avoid tumbling over into an irrecoverable greenhouse condition.  The problem with other technical solutions is that there is little that can be done to prevent widespread destruction and political instability that will result from rising sea levels. The acidification of the oceans will kill much of the current sea life. The impacts of that can only be imagined. We will eventually run out of oil. The risk is by then are that the greenhouse effect will be self-sustaining.

Conservative Myth – Climate Change Part 1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2016

This is an interesting one because it is so revealing about both the politics and the psychology of the conservative movement in this country. It speaks directly to the power of tribalism that Jonathan Haidt and Chris Mooney have written about.

In this first part, let’s see if we can figure out why climate change denial is a uniquely American phenomena. In fact, it isn’t just a uniquely American phenomena. It is a uniquely Conservative Republican phenomena. No other conservative party in the world denies the science. They all differ on the responses to climate change, most supporting international cooperating and binding treaties as the solution rather than unilateral actions.

This is also a recent phenomenon. Nixon created the EPA and Bush I strengthened it. Even Reagan signed an international agreement to curb the aerosol pollution that was depleting the ozone layer.

US conservatives were generally aligned with international conservatives on all of the big issues. Then something changed. That something has left US conservatives alone in the world, not only on the issue of climate change, but also on issues like supply side economics, opposition to universal health care, and a virulent anti-government ideology.

Let’s see if history can provide us a clue.

History

The effect of CO2 on the temperature of the earth was predicted as early as 1824. The actual effects of coal burning were measured in 1938. The US military began funding climate research in the ‘40’s. Oceanographer Roger Revelle was the first to sound an alarm in 1957 when he predicted that the oceans would not able to absorb all the additional CO2 that the world was pumping into the atmosphere. In 1979 the Charney Report was one of the first scientific assessments of climate change. The report warned of substantial warming already under way and that, “A wait-and-see policy may mean waiting until it is too late”.

Ronald Reagan, as part of his anti-regulation agenda, politicized climate change. He appointed a climate change denier as Secretary of Energy and proposed deep spending cuts for environmental research including CO2 monitoring. Al Gore led the opposition which managed to save some of the funding. It also saw the emergence of the first prominent climate change denier, Sherwood B. Idso. Prof Idso is a soil scientist who claimed that increased CO2 would be a net gain because of the agricultural benefits. He complained when his theories were debunked in peer reviewed journals. He later became closely associated with the coal industry. When the EPA came out with a report in 1983 warning that climate change was a real, immediate, and catastrophic threat, Reagan responded calling the report alarmist. In 1988, climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress that climate change was under way, we’d see severe effects within 50 years, and that there was broad consensus in the scientific community that human activity was the likely cause.

In 1989 the fossil fuel industry began funding a disinformation campaign. The Global Climate Coalition and the George C Marshall institute adopted the same techniques perfected by the tobacco industry. In fact they even recruited the group that invented junk science for the tobacco industry (The Advancement of Sound Science Center) to undermine climate change science. Exxon was one of their major funders. They hired a small group of scientists who disagreed with the larger scientific consensus. That group began speaking to conservative political groups. Since their theories wouldn’t pass muster in peer reviewed journals, they started publishing books to support their positions. As their arguments were refuted by the larger scientific community, the disinformation campaign switched their tactics. They began circulating the idea of a global warming conspiracy and attacking the personal reputations of the scientists supporting legitimate climate change research.

That same year (1989) conservative think tanks including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute got involved. They had originally been formed in the 70’s as an intellectual counter-movement to socialism. With the collapse of communism, they needed a new enemy in order to continue to support themselves. They positioned climate change as a threat to private property, free trade, and global capitalism.

In 1998, The American Petroleum Institute got into the act offering $5M to interested scientists who would help promote a program of “raising questions about and undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific wisdom’”.

This activity did not go unnoticed. Articles starting in the 2000’s documented the connections between conservative think tanks and climate change deniers. Fossil fuel industry funding of these organizations has also been well documented including a Newsweek cover article in 2007. The NYT reported in 2015 that the oil companies have known their products caused climate change since the 70’s but continued to fund deniers – much like the tobacco industry.

The dramatic rightward shift of Republican politics in general, pretty much sealed the deal. It also started with Reagan’s election, and has continued unabated since. Climate change became one of the issues of difference between the increasingly conservative Republican party and the Democrats.

From Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight.com blog

From Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com blog

Here’s a good summary from an October article in the Guardian.

And it’s clear from the language the Republican Party leaders use that they view climate change not as a scientific or critical risk management issue, but rather as a Democrat issue. Thus, Republican leaders simply can’t accept the need to address climate change, because that would put the on the same side of an issue as Democrats.

Summary

An aggressive propaganda campaign waged by the fossil fuel industry and conservative think tanks has successfully positioned climate change as a political rather than a scientific topic in this country. The rightward shift in American politics provided climate change denial a constituency that it does not have anywhere else in the world. Climate change denial has become a matter of belief for many of those who make up the conservative base of the Republican Party. As a result, it is a litmus test along with supply side economics, evolution, and opposition to universal healthcare. In order to run for office in today’s Republican Party, you have to at least question, if not outright deny the science of climate change.

While it won’t change any conservative minds, in the next segment I’ll go through the six stages of denial for those who question climate change. This won’t touch on every objection that has been raised over the past 25 years of propaganda, but it does follow a fairly logical progression and will address the majority of denial views.

Trump and the Crazy Train

Friday, August 14th, 2015

There is certainly one thing that you can say about Trump – he is entertaining.

What people aren’t talking about is the fact that ALL of the Republican presidential candidates are in one way or another just as crazy as Trump.

Trump represents an interesting populist anti-establishment uprising that has surprised the party establishment, the media, and Trump. He is also the natural evolution of the “money votes” economy. Rand Paul was on the right track when he said that Trump is “used to buying politicians”. He has simply taken the next step of by passing the middle man and representing his own interests. Whether he is able to translate this into a nomination is yet to be seen.

He gained momentum by demonizing undocumented workers. He fanned the flames of xenophobia by claiming that Mexico was deliberately sending their most dangerous citizens to us to deal with.

All of the rest of the candidates were dragged along to support Trump’s claim that there is a crisis at the border. Rubio tried to distance himself from his previous support of a path to citizenship. Walker also changed his tune. Christie called his previous support a “garbage idea”. Even Trump had flipped from his earlier support of path to citizenship. Only Kasich, Hackabee, Carson, and Paul have resisted the urge to jump on the “we’re being overwhelmed with criminals” bandwagon.

The problem is that fact checkers call this claim false. Illegal immigration peaked in 2007 and has actually declined since. Deportations hit an all time high in 2013 of 400K. Most of those were convicted of crimes in this country. More robust border enforcement has not only dramatically reduced illegal immigration, but it has also discouraged undocumented workers from leaving this country for fear that they won’t be able to get back in. The result is a fairly stable population of undocumented workers in this country of 11M. Their children, at least those born here, will automatically be citizens. If these trends continue, within thirty years the number of undocumented workers will drop by 50% without any other actions on our part.

So the only value in building a bigger wall is that it will likely provide some jobs for those that the wall is intended to keep out.

How about abortion?

Trump flipped from his previous support of abortion.

Rubio lied about never supporting exceptions to abortion.

Bush questioned whether, “we need half a billion dollars for women’s health issues.”

Huckabee said he would ignore the Supreme Court and declare that a “baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception.”

Santorum, who has built his political career on his opposition to abortion, took the opportunity to question Carson’s character because Carson used fetal tissue in his medical research. “When you start to see some of these cracks, I think it may show whether the person is really someone who’s going to take on an issue and be strong on it when they get into the very difficult position of being President of the United States.” An interesting attack from the guy who recently failed a significant test of character when he had to choose between politics and his religious faith on the topic of climate change.

How about healthcare?

Trump flip flopped in his previous support for single payor.

All promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better. NONE have said what that something better would be other than some discussion that health savings accounts would be nice.

How about the use of our military in the Middle East?

Rand Paul is the only one who would not put “boots on the ground”.

Fiorina lied when she claimed that the US wasn’t arming the Kurds. We are doing it through the Iraqi government.

How about the economy?

Jeb promises that he can deliver 4% growth off into the future based on his experience in Florida and his belief in supply side economics. The reality is that he presided over a huge real estate bubble in Florida. When it burst, shortly after he left office, 900K of the 1.3M jobs he claimed to create vanished. Funny the same thing happened to his brother’s supply-side experiment.

Many economists think that 4% is just out of our reach because of the demographic headwinds of the baby boomer retirement. You really have to believe in the fairy dust of supply side economics to project that we would touch 3% as a result of government policies.

Christie claimed some big job numbers, but his state ranked 44 out of 50 in job growth.

Walker did not elaborate on his failure to deliver the 215K jobs he promised would appear as a result of the massive tax cuts he gave business. Instead he talked about job growth and job participation numbers. What he didn’t say is that these were the same numbers that existed prior to his election.

Huckabee solves everything with a consumption tax. One of the advantages of that tax is that even “illegals, prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers” would be paying this tax. He claims that tax will generate 6% growth. I have to admit that 6 is better than 4 which is certainly better than 2, but just changing the tax policy won’t do it. You have to get more workers which just isn’t going to happen unless there is also a radical change in immigration policy which is not part of Huckabee’s plan. Even if you got more workers, you would also have to have a significant change in productivity because wages would have to track this growth in order to get more money into the economy. Huckabee hasn’t even thought of this because his consumption tax shifts most of the tax burden to the poor. All he has thought about is that 6 is better than 4.

Then there is Doc Carson, who suggest that we should all tithe 10% of income instead of pay taxes. When asked whether or not it would work, he said that if it worked for God, it will work for us.

Summary

In this context it isn’t surprising that Trump is having the success that he has been having. The reality is that the only half-way serious candidate in this train full of clowns is Kasich. Not surprisingly he is the most moderate of the bunch and as a result, the least likely to get the nomination.

This speaks volumes about what the Republican Party has become. This is no longer the party of George HW Bush or even Ronald Reagan. It has become the party of paranoia and extremism as the old white angry men, who have been the party’s backbone, struggle with the reality that they are no longer in control. They failed to defend marriage from the onslaught of gay rights. They failed to prevent the rollout of what they see as another big entitlement program in Obamacare. Black people are demanding justice. Hispanics have discovered the power of the ballot box. Even the Pope disagrees with their abortion obsession. And women are no longer content with staying home and raising children. They not only demand a career, but also equal pay for equal work.

These guys are growing tired of the effort required to hold back the flood of scientific evidence supporting human-caused climate change. Their dam has sprung so many leaks that they are running out of fingers to plug them. Coal-based electrical generation is not only polluting, it is expensive. The most economical and highest performance car is all electric, made in this country, and sold direct over the internet. The world is changing under their feet and there appears to be little they can do to prevent it except perhaps support someone who is willing to give voice to their fears and frustrations – Donald Trump.

The Human Condition, Faith, Facts, and Truth

Friday, December 26th, 2014

First a brief review of the difference between fact and truth.

A fact is something that can’t be logically disputed or rejected. Within the base ten system, two plus two will always equal four. That’s a fact.

Truth on the other hand has within it the quality of judgment. That’s because pointing out what is “true” immediately also identifies what is “false”.

Truth is something that must be discovered or created. Here’s an example. The observable facts are that the path that light from a distant object takes can be curved by the presence of another large object (the sun). This observable fact supports Einstein’s general theory of relativity. We accept that theory as a true description of how the universe works because it explains all of the observable facts that we can assemble.

The search for meaning (truth) has always been part of the human condition. In that search, we assemble observations. Some of those observations are facts (mathematics). Some are not (religion).

The challenge of course is that all humans are also susceptible to accept those observations that agree with our point of view as fact and dispute those truths that call our favorite “facts” in question. Scholars from Johnathan Haidt to Aristotle have wrestled with this question of whether there is an absolute truth that can and should be universally shared.

Science has moved the furthest in the direction of separating fact from belief and true from false. The way that they do that is through a version of crowd sourcing called the scientific method.

When someone discovers something that they propose as a fact, they share it with everyone else in their scientific community. If others can duplicate that observation, it is affirmed as a fact. Others in the community can challenge that fact, but they have to produce their own observations that can be duplicated that demonstrate the the original observation was inaccurate.

Only after accepted facts are established, do members of that community attempt to discover or create theories which explain why those facts occur. Those theories get tested and re-tested as new facts are discovered. Eventually some subset of theories emerge as accepted truth because a majority of the scientific community agree that these theories accurately explain all of the applicable observed facts.

That doesn’t mean that these truths are absolute. As our knowledge expands, there is always the possibility that new facts will be discovered that force a re-evaluation of previous theories. This process of enhancement is what improves theories. Occasionally, observations require a radical change to theories. But usually the change is more gradual. That gradual change is currently underway in improving the climate models that we have. But one of the accepted truths in climate science is that the atmosphere is warming at a rate that exceeds what can be explained by natural phenomena.

What makes all of this work is that this scientific method is BIASED toward crowd sourced peer review that is eager to discover and prove new facts. The claim by some that the scientific method suppresses facts in an effort to prevent contrary theories from emerging is self serving FUD. Those who voice that opinion are attempting to discredit the process because they oppose the results of the process – not because they have any proof that the results of the process are flawed. If anything, exactly the opposite is true. The scientific community gives fringe opinions too much respect. This provides those who practice “science for hire” undeserved legitimacy. One example of this junk science were the tobacco-funded researchers who for years tried to disprove the fact that tobacco caused cancer. The fossil fuel industry invests in similar research today in an attempt to muddy the water regarding the real causes and likely results of climate change.

The challenge of trying to live a fact-based life, however, is that it often fails to satisfy our basic need for meaning. We have a gut feel that there is a God, even though it can’t be proven. We have a gut feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with dependency, but we can’t explain why. We have a gut feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with discrimination, but we can’t explain why. There are some human activities that we feel are revolting or depraved even when it only involves willing adults.

We long for a connection to a higher power who can help us resolve these conflicts, provide us direction, and give us purpose.

This is a belief-based life.

Those who live belief-based lives are sometimes vulnerable to intolerance, bias, discrimination, and even fanaticism in response to those who don’t share their beliefs.

The problem is that those who claim to live fact-based lives are no less vulnerable to the same temptations.

So where does this leave us?

Confirmation bias clouds our vision, confuses belief with fact, and causes us to take positions on an emotional basis and then attempt to defend those positions with junk science or conspiracy theories. In other words, facts no longer have an objective quality. Instead every fact gets evaluated against the filter of how it affects our view of the truth. Truth constructed from beliefs can’t be questioned even when there are no facts to support it. Climate change is a perfect example of this phenomena.

While no one has a monopoly on facts or the truth, the further we drift away from respect for facts and the certitude of science, the more difficult it becomes for us to find the common ground that we need to allow our Democracy to work.

Aristotle summed it up best.

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of all things, and while individually they contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.

The universal truth may be that we are all human and in that shared humanity are the seeds for transcendence and destruction. This holiday is the celebration of our shared hope that we can overcome our weaknesses and build a better future where we all can live in peace.

Crazy Train – 2014

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

We are witnessing the inevitable consequences of making science optional.

Exhibit 1 – Ebola

Ebola is a virus that was originally identified in 1976. Fruit bats may be the carrier. They aren’t affected.

Humans are.

There have been approximately 10 outbreaks of the disease, all in Africa, over the last 40 years.

The most recent outbreak has been by far the most serious.

Like many other diseases caused by a virus, there is no cure.

This virus, however, is relatively difficult to transmit. You have to actually consume some body fluid from an infected person during the period of time that they are exhibiting symptoms in order to contract the virus. Because the symptoms are so debilitating, those most likely to contract the disease are those providing care to those who already have the disease.

The common flu, which infects and kills WAY more people every year than Ebola, mutates regularly and is airborne. You only have to breathe the same air that was recently sneezed into by a flu victim in order to catch their flu.

Ebola, while exhibiting dreadful symptoms, is relatively easy to contain. Just wash your hands.

The reason that it spreads in Africa is because living conditions are primitive, cities are crowded, hygiene is difficult to maintain, there is little health care infrastructure, a shortage of clean water, and burial customs involve families touching the corpse.

The reason it won’t spread in any more advanced country is because people DO wash their hands, there is clean water, there are fully staffed hospitals, governments are able to isolate the infected, quarantine those that have been exposed, and people generally refrain from touching a corpse if they suspect it may be diseased.

Unfortunately conservative Republicans cannot refrain from dragging this “corpse” through the public square with a big sign that says “be afraid of foreigners”.

Exhibit 2 – Beheadings

The Islamic State has figured out how to manipulate the west again.

They kill a handful of people in a gruesome barbaric way and the US fires up the engine of war again and sends it chugging back into the Middle East to the tune of $22M a day.

Over 33K people die on our roads every year. Many of these deaths are just as gruesome. The only difference is that they are not broadcast on YouTube and they are mostly accidents, not homicides.

There are almost as many gun deaths in this country every year too. Many of these deaths are just as gruesome as the ISIL videos. Few of the gun deaths are posted to YouTube, but most of them are intentional homicides.

The bottom line is that you are 33K times more likely to get killed by a car or a gun than you are to be beheaded by a terrorist. Yet we aren’t spending $22M a day to make our roads safer. We certainly aren’t spending $22M a day to reduce gun violence.

The reason we are terrified of ISIL is the same reason we are terrified of Ebola.

Fox News tells us we should be afraid of them because there is a Democrat in the White House and an election in two months.

It is boogyman politics at its worst.

You have a greater chance of being struck by lightning or bitten by a shark than you have contracting Ebola or being beheaded by a jihadist.

This is exactly the reaction ISIL was hoping for because their lifeblood is new recruits. The best way to get recruits is to pick a fight with the west. And we are happy to accommodate because Republicans have a chance to take over the Senate.

David Brooks calls it contagious hysteria.

He blames it on our polarized segmented society. People are choosing to live near those who share their political beliefs. They only talk with those who share their beliefs. They only listen to news sources that echo their beliefs.

People who feel alienated from the leadership class distrust the institutions of those leaders, whether it is political, cultural, or scientific. As a result we see a dramatic increase in parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids because they fear autism. We see junk science and conspiracy theories carry as much weight as sound peer-reviewed academic research. We see a general erosion in the confidence in government regardless of who is in charge, and the ability for the democratic process to effect any substantive change.

Add to this already toxic mix, a partisan broadcast media pursuing a business model that feeds on crisis, dissension, and demonization. Fox and MSNBC are the modern day Savonarola leading the mob in pursuit of those responsible for the plague.

The true weakness is not in our institutions. It is in us.

We believe in Science

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

“We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth.” Elizabeth Warren

This was part of a longer list of progressive values that Elizabeth Warren listed in a July speech to Netroots Nation.

I agree with her list, but I thought it interesting to dig into why progressives believe in science. It might also be interesting to compare those beliefs with the implied opposing conservative view. Since this is just my opinion, I’ll change this perspective from “we” to “I”.

Why I believe in Science?

Science is inherently about the search for truth. While any human endeavor is vulnerable to bias, the scientific community celebrates revolutionary thought rather than suppressing it.

These claims are the result of the modern scientific method.

That method employs what we would now call crowd sourcing as a protection against bias.

Science, at least the hard sciences, depends on mathematics. Mathematics has no bias.

There are two types of scientists in the world – theoretical and experimental. Theoretical scientists rely on mathematics to create new models to explain or predict experimental results. Experimental scientists test these theories through experiments.

All scientists publish the results of their work in peer reviewed journals. The scientific community engages through these journals to verify the math, confirm experimental results, and comment on new theories.

If the math behind the theories survives review by independent groups, the theories gain credibility.

If the theories accurately predict experiment results, the theories gain credibility.

If the experimental results can be duplicated by independent groups, they gain credibility.

As theories gain support in the scientific community, more scientists engage in exploring the boundaries of those theories. As the experimental evidence accumulates and the boundaries of the theories emerge, those theories become accepted by a majority of the scientific community.

That’s where we are with climate science. The boundaries are still evolving, but the basic assumption that the current changes in climate that we are seeing are caused by human activity is accepted by 98% of those qualified to have an opinion.

I believe in science because I believe in the purity of mathematics and reliability of the peer-reviewed crowd sourced model.

Why do liberals believe in science?

The answer here is more nuanced.

The facts are that we are all fundamentally emotional decision makers. That’s what moral intuitionism is all about. The difference is that when it comes down to a choice, it is easier for liberals to alter their views in the face of contradicting facts than it is for conservatives.

We’ve also talked about how liberals and conservatives operate emotionally from two different sets of moral foundations. Liberals focus on fairness and care. Conservatives share those foundations but are also concerned about liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

Science is inherently fair. Liberals view science as a tool to determine how to best address the problems of those who need care and protection.

That isn’t to say that liberals don’t also have their biases and areas where these emotional moral foundation-based decisions cause them to be science deniers. Vaccinations, though not exclusively a liberal issue, is a good example.
Finally, studies also show that liberals are fundamentally accepting of change while conservatives fear it. If science has any bias, it is toward change. Scientists are motivated toward answering the unanswered questions. That inevitably leads to upending accepted theories and replacing them with new ones.

Why are conservatives science deniers?

Conservatives weren’t always science deniers. The coalitions created by Nixon and Reagan, aligned conservatives with Christian fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians ARE science deniers. The result has been the politicization of science because it calls into question beliefs that spring from a literal interpretation of the Bible.

Big Tobacco developed the political tools to cast doubt on mainstream science. It was the only way they could continue to sell a product that killed people. A long line of conservative political operatives have refined those tools to create wedge issues, build conservative coalitions, and attack liberalism.

Conclusion

Mathematics is one of the few things in our existence that is pure, absolute, and rational. That is not an indictment of emotion or belief. Science, because it is based on mathematics, simply stands in stark contrast to belief.

Those who attempt to base their lives on belief, for example, have no choice but to deny science. Science isn’t specifically attacking their beliefs. Science is simply creating theories to explain experimental evidence that is being discovered. Any damage that any particular belief suffers is generally unintended.

Here’s just a simple thought experiment to illustrate the point. If at some point in the future, science discovers that there WAS evidence of some “creative event” that could only be explained by intervention from a higher power, liberals would have no problem accepting that theory. Liberals would find themselves more closely aligned with conservative Christian beliefs on this particular topic. Atheists would then find themselves in the curious position of denying science in order to defend their position.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way and that’s the basic challenge of this age.

For liberals, science largely guides belief.

For conservatives, belief trumps science.

Magic Thinking and Personal Interest

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

We’ve talked about confirmation bias in the past and how we are all susceptible. Confirmation bias is when we accept those things that support our particular view of the world and reject those things which call that view into question. A version of this is Moral Intuition. That’s when we respond to a particular issue emotionally and then use our rational brain to create arguments supporting what we have already decided must be true because it aligns with our moral foundations.

These biases lead to Magic Thinking. That is when we invent or accept views completely unsupported by science or fact because this particular view is consistent with our world view.

Here’s an example of Magic Thinking.

God makes political choices
This is a simple one to work through. God, as described in the Bible, is all-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfect. He created us in His image and likeness which means in His eyes we are perfect too. He supplies our every need. So why would this God involve Himself in politics at all? It is akin to praying that God influence the outcome of a sporting event. Why would He bother? It is our responsibility to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”. Then Paul goes on to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Events unfold to further God’s will, not to satisfy our own particular personal plan. That will is His desire for us to increase in grace and in our understanding of Him. So the unfolding of God’s plan is generally the path that does the most good and blesses everyone. There are no losers in God’s plan. Winning is strictly a human concept. It is Magic Thinking to expect a prayer for victory to be answered. A much more effective prayer is one that humbly seeks direction and alignment with the plan that is already in place for us.

Magic Thinking is dangerous for our democracy because it transforms important issues from facts to belief. Beliefs are highly emotional subjects. So any attempt to debate them is divisive. That’s because beliefs by their nature are personal. So when you question a belief, you are also calling into question the intelligence and honesty of the person holding that belief.

Some who seek to manipulate the public in order to advance their own agendas put a lot of effort into transforming political positions into beliefs.

Here are some other examples.

Climate Change
From a scientific perspective, there is wide agreement that the climate is changing and that the change is PRIMARILY caused by human activity. That doesn’t mean that all scientists agree on everything. There are certainly a small number of climate scientists who have dissenting views. It also doesn’t mean that the scientific models are perfect. They aren’t because our planet is a complex system. But those models continue to improve as climate scientists better understand how our planet is responding to the increased heat being retained by our atmosphere.

Magic Thinking claims that climate change is some sort of liberal conspiracy. The politics of personal interest is the best way to disprove that. Self interest in the scientific community is strongly biased toward disproving accepted theories. That’s how scientists make a name for themselves in their peer community. The scientific method REWARDS the person who is able to demonstrate that a popular theory is flawed. That reward is shared with those who can duplicate the experiments which support the new theory. In other words, a dissenting view supported by good research is always welcome in the scientific community.

There is also no proof that scientists who disagree with the generally accepted theories about climate change suffer financially. In fact, it is much the opposite. Those small number of dissenters from the majority view are richly rewarded for their positions by the powerful interests who oppose actions restricting the use of fossil fuels.

The politics of personal interest also provide a simple explanation for conservative opposition to any government actions to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The majority of the money financing conservative politicians who deny climate change comes from organizations linked to the Koch Brothers. Their wealth is based on fossil fuels. Their personal interests are opposed to any restrictions on the use of fossil fuels.

They have successfully deployed the same techniques originally developed by the Tobacco Industry to create doubt and confuse science and belief. If anything, it is testimony to the ethics of the scientific community that most climatologists have resisted the temptations of participating in the lucrative practice of junk science.

Free Markets
The Magic Thinking here is that free markets can regulate themselves. So any failure for free markets to operate successfully is attributed to too much government intervention rather than companies that have become too big to fail.

The reality is that while it is certainly possible for government to overreach, there is no evidence that free markets can effectively operate without regulation.

The politics of personal interest are a reliable measure of where this argument came from too. Who stands to benefit the most from a deregulation? Those entities that had been previously regulated, their management, and their stock holders. Who back the conservative politicians who promoted the agenda of deregulation? The same group.

One need look no further than China for examples of how industries behave in economies where there are no regulations. The environment is polluted. Workplaces kill workers. Products kill customers.

The Magic Thinking is on the part of individuals who have been convinced by these larger monied interests that deregulation benefits them. Just ask the people in Charleston, West Virginia where “business friendly” state regulations allowed a toxic chemical storage facility to be built upstream from their drinking water intake pipes. Magic Thinking in this case is the Libertarian view that the marketplace will punish bad corporate behavior. The facts are that at least in our version of capitalism, short term profits always trump long term unfunded liabilities (externalities).

What happens instead is that the offending company profits from their bad behavior. Those profits flow to company management and shareholders. When the externalities finally catch up with the company, the real costs of production are revealed. The cost of the damage done to either the environment, the workers, or the customers far outweighs the assets of the company. The company declares bankruptcy and taxpayers are often left holding the bill. Lawyers may make a little money attempting to recover some costs from those who profited, but most of those profits are long gone and will never be recovered.

Immigration
Just like climate change, this country is facing an undeniable demographic reality. Our population is aging. If we fail to embrace immigration, we will suffer the same bleak economic outlook that Japan has been struggling with the past decade. Combine that with the major demographic shifts in the electorate that were the foundation for Obama’s two Presidential victories and Republicans are facing a stark choice. Either embrace immigration reform or die as a relevant national party.

The Magic Thinking is that conservative Republicans can continue to be a force in the House because of gerrymandering and the lower voter turnouts during off year elections. As long as they can retain that majority, they don’t need the White House or the Senate. They can do this by suppressing the vote, preventing immigrants from becoming citizens, playing wedge politics with their base, and outspending the opposition.

The reality is that conservatives are simply going to run out angry white voters. When they do, it will be hell to pay for the tactics that they employed to hold onto the power that they had.

Abortion
The facts are the no one can say when life begins. We can recognize when something is living, but there is no agreement when something starts living.

The rest of the facts are that Roe V. Wade did not decide when life begins. It also had nothing to do with personhood. It was decided based on the rights of the mother. Her rights take precedence until the point in time that the fetus can survive independently. There is NOTHING that the current right to life movement can do to change that perspective short of a constitutional amendment.

Magic Thinking, however, suggests that the Justices make a bad decision. They simply didn’t have the facts that we have today. If we just get some different justices on the bench, the decision will get reversed. It’s not going to happen.

The politics of self interest call into immediate question why this issue continues to fester for decades after this decision was made. The people who benefit from this continued controversy are the advocacy groups (for both sides) and the politicians who are able to raise money by aligning themselves with one group or the other. It is not unlike divorce lawyers to make their money asserting the rights of their client, when they know full well that judges are loath to give one parent sole custody of the children, support an inequitable property split, limit child support, or these days provide alimony. If both parties in a divorce were told what the likely settlement would be, they would start to work out the details on their own rather than invest money in lawyers attempting to “win”. The same is true here. No one will win. It will instead be a trench war that will only stop when the next generation refuses to continue to fund special interest groups.

The Poor
Poverty is a complicated subject. The facts are that programs like Social Security and Medicaid have dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly. We already dug into the economic costs of poverty and the benefits to reducing it.

The Magic Thinking, however, is that poverty is the fault of the poor. They must have made a bad decision somewhere in their lives for them to end up in the position that they now find themselves. As a result, any attempt to help them escape poverty does nothing to resolve the more fundamental character weakness that got them in this condition to begin with.

Ayn Rand has written the “Bible” for this particular form of Magic Thinking. The challenge is that those who advocate this gospel of “personal responsibility” and “greed is good” are also dealing in belief rather than fact.

Conclusion
Magic Thinking masks the politics of personal interest. Those special interests are well versed in the tactics required to transform political points of view into beliefs. Once a political position becomes part of an individuals belief system, they are no longer open to a fact based discussion. Those who embrace these beliefs will only accept the facts that support their beliefs. They will reject the facts that call those beliefs into question. They will defend their positions using the stock arguments of Moral Intuitionism. Those include media bias, conspiracy theories, flawed polling, and junk science.

The result is an increasingly polarized electorate, gridlocked government, and crumbling economic and physical infrastructure. The only times that we are able to make any changes are during the first two years of any new administration when the majority party can actually pass parts of their agenda by imposing their will on the minority.

This is no way to run a country.

Perfect Snow

Saturday, February 1st, 2014
Satellite photo of the Great Lakes on January 28. 2014

Satellite photo of the Great Lakes on January 28. 2014

It snowed in SE Michigan again today.

That is nothing new, particularly for those of us living the Midwest.

As I was out shoveling (again), I starting thinking about politics. Some may point to this winter as confirming scientists’ predictions of the consequences of climate change. Some instead may blame a vengeful deity who is punishing us for sensualism or abortion or contraception or same sex marriage or some other choice from a long list of perceived shortcomings.

While I tend to agree with scientists, I also enjoy reading the Bible. The quote that comes to mind is from Matthew. The edit is mine.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain (or snow) on the just and on the unjust.

The question this brought to my mind is why would God ignore the evil and punish the good by sending the snow to pile up on everyone?

Then it came to me.

He loves us – all of us.

Snow isn’t a punishment. It is a blessing.

It is a blessing that a generous God shares with all His creation. It doesn’t matter whether you are righteous, profligate, straight, gay, chaste, or promiscuous. The snow is going to pile up on your drive way and in front of your door and on your side walks. It’s going to make it difficult to drive, and dangerous to walk. Rich or poor, sober or drunk, you are going to have to pay attention and do something about it.

When temps are below zero and the wind is howling, our focus narrows to what has to be done. We stop worrying about whether or not somebody else is getting away with something. It is a waste of time looking for someone to blame. We are all in this together. We clear the steps so that the postman can deliver the mail. We clear the sidewalk and maybe our neighbors sidewalk too because the kids have to be able to get to school. We help get cars out of the drifts because our car may be the next one needing a push. We don’t care who is driving or what they may have done to get themselves in that situation. It’s too cold. There’s too much snow. We just push.

We are all cold.

We are all buried.

We are all blessed.

Then there’s the rest of the Matthew quote.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

God loves us and expects us to be his perfect reflections. So He sends us beautiful white snow just to remind us how perfect we really are.