Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The rise of the psuedo-expert

Andrew Sullivan highlighted this graphic a few days ago: it is a translation of a note by Leonardo da Vinci. He also points to this analysis, which I find telling in our particular historical moment today:
I think it's pretty interesting that of the nine tasks shown, six involve consulting and learning from other people. Leonardo da Vinci needs to find a book. Leonardo da Vinci needs to get in touch with local merchants, monks, and accountants who he hopes can help him better understand concepts within their areas of expertise.
Leonardo da Vinci knows he doesn't know everything.
The climate debate is of course saturated with people who believe they know everything. Monckton is a particularly egregious example, but this behavior extends on the way down to the lowly comment-leaving "skeptic." An important aspect of their rhetoric is its implicit populism; how dare so-called "experts" with their "training" and their "lifetime of peer-reviewed scientific work" fail to respect the blog-taught skeptic auteur.

This behavior extends beyond the climate wars; it has become a key element of dishonest rhetoric in the internet age. Bill Keller's recent essay "The Politics of Economics in the Age of Shouting" tells the story from another angle:
Back in the very pre-digital days, the writer A. J. Liebling famously remarked that freedom of the press was guaranteed only to the man who owned one. Nowadays, of course, freedom of the press belongs to anyone with Internet access, from the information guerrillas of WikiLeaks to the blogger next door. The democratization of media has diminished the authority once held — and sometimes abused — by a few big newspapers and broadcasters. In many ways this has enriched society, creating a great global buffet of information and opinion, pooling the knowledge of the masses and providing an almost instantaneous reality check on the conventional wisdom.
The consequences have not all been happy, though. The easiest way to stand out in such a vast crowd of microbroadcasters is to be the loudest, the angriest, the most outrageous. If you want that precious traffic, you stake out a position somewhere in oh-my-God territory and proclaim it with a vengeance. Global warming is a hoax! Vaccines make you sick! Obama is a Muslim! In vanquishing the conventional wisdom, sometimes it seems we have vanquished wisdom itself. . . . In the Internet age, anyone can be an expert, and anyone who says otherwise is an elitist.
When people take the time to actually become experts, or at least competent, the internet free-for-all is valuable. But pseudoskeptics, whose ultimate goal is to forestall action, rarely take that path, and it's not hard to see why:

1. Loudly asserting expertise may not convey authority upon you, but it does serve to create confusion. Creating an environment in which real scientists are not trusted is just as effective -- and far easier -- than building a solid argument that convinces people who know the science.

2. Expertise is narrow. Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most famous polymath in human history, yet, the areas in which he trusts his own knowledge exclusively are rather narrow; his dependence on other scholars is quite extensive. That's the reality of knowing something well; it takes time and effort. Fake expertise, based upon expensive claims, arrogant assertions, and vicious, slanderous attacks on real scientists, is a Swiss Army knife of rhetoric.

Fake skeptics need fake expertise because they change their accounts of the science and critique of emissions restrictions on a daily basis, according to the needs of the situation. One minute they are attacking the temperature record. The next they scorn the idea that anyone ever questioned the world was warming. The next day they are economists, knowing that warming will be beneficial to human welfare. On Tuesdays they are experts in international politics, certain that there will never be an agreement to cut greenhouse gases, and by Wednesday, if the winds are favorable, they will once again be experts in radiative physics, proving that carbon dioxide cannot warm the planet.

Real expertise will speak to one of those arguments. In part. Fake expertise is easily invoked to support them all.

My favorite recent example of fake experts in their natural habitat is this thread, in which the subject of how Easter Island with deforested attracted the attention of Judith's pseudoscientists, who instantly, instantly -- use their "common sense" to become experts in archeology. Just one example:

Overall I find Diamond’s work absurd and consider him to be equivalent to other obvious cranks and charlatans like Von Daniken. He’s popular only because modern day eco-silliness and cultural revisionism is popular, and it is popular for the same reason the Victorians had such asinine views of societies that preceded theirs — projection in the form of disbelief that previous societies could be quite clever. (e.g. until very recently the prevailing view of Tudor England was informed by a number of victorian works, all of which were breathtakingly wrong, and only recently has been overturned by real scholars like David Starkey.) Diamond isn’t even qualified to serve lunch to real scholars, much less waste their time with his ridiculously slanted and partisan opinions.

This thread is no different. An anti-western (typical postmodern revisionism purporting to reject colonialism therefore “cool” and oh so intellectual) eco-warrior like Diamond highlights a suspect eco-warrior opinion paper so as to wield this as a club to make a blunt and wrong point, and the usual suspects chime in with the “hey it was published therefore must be TRVTH” meme.
I’ve seen the easter island eco-rubbish before and have considered it a real hoot. I had no idea anyone took Diamond et al seriously. The notion that islanders who know they’re living on a remote rock would blow the only resources necessary to leave said rock so as to roll giant heads about is absurdity on stilts.

. . . People were clever even back then. Imagine that. Dragging was invented by those who have a romantic notion of the cleverness of the modern era and a presumption that the ancients were stupid. Diamond et al conjure up the image of imbecile natives deforesting the island to drag statuary assuming they were too dumb to figure out how to move statues any other way. “Scholarship” depending on the notion of stupidity of the people of the past is worthless.

And so on and on. Ultimately, the strategy of the fake expert is a bluff; by bald assertion, frequent repetition, and rapid escalation to hysterical carpet-chewing, they seek to train others to let their ridiculous claims pass unchallenged. If others do engage with them, they seek to assert a false equivalence with informed commentators; they have their opinion, and (scientists, archaeologists, economists, etc) have theirs.

This rhetoric is highly effective in rallying those already predisposed to disregard politically troublesome facts. It is strengthened by the hyperpartisan  atmosphere in which everything is contested, and nothing one's own "side" says can ever be a simple mistake -- as the online legions who rushed to defend Sarah Palin's Paul Revere blunder can attest:
nomedawson 5 months ago
The sad, snide, sappy, snarky, superlious attacks on Sarah Palin by lachrymous, lugubrious, liberal latte-sippers is soooo sanctimonious & shallow. All revolutionary/foundational events soon become encrusted in myth & legend. The truth is too mundane. So, simple minded jingles from Longfellow become rigid doctrine. Who would dare to look deeper? Complexity, nuance? Oooooh, sooo mean! So, if Sarah Palin ever goes to Italy, she must parrot the rubbish that two abandoned babies named Romulus & Remus were sustained into puberty on wolf’s milk; then they founded Rome. Because “it’s one of the key stories” in Roman history.

How does real expertise -- in all its necessary humility, walking its narrow path of specialization, with its retinue of caveats and qualifications -- assert itself in an internet age in which, as Yeats prophetically predicted, the worst are full of passionate intensity?

That is the key question for those on the side of science in the global warming online free-for-all.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Idiot comment of the day

Ignorance is not fraud when you follow practiced procedures or come up with a new calculation or concept. When those procedures are incorrect, what others is out there that are correct?
Years of traditional teachings and theories that never change even though they are incorrect to the technology available is still being installed in our education. Not allowed to question the teacher as he is only as good as what is in a book.
So, where do you go when the teacher does not have the answer, yet you must follow protocol or fail?
I tried twice with the peer-review system and will not subject myself again to a system that is prejudice.
Now begs the question of who is the expert to review velocity?

What can you say? The ignorance and lack of self-awareness is horrifying but in a strange way majestic, like an elephant carcass rotting in the sun.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keystone XL on hold

From the Times:

The Obama administration is preparing to delay a decision on the contested Keystone XL pipeline while it studies an alternate route, effectively pushing any action past the 2012 election, officials and lobbyists who have been briefed on the matter said on Thursday. An announcement is expected as early as Thursday afternoon.
This is a victory for those that stood against this spectacularly awful plan to help Canada distribute massive amounts of dirty oil. James Hansen, a world-renowned scientist and septuagenarian who went to jail over this, deserves special mention.

It's also really clever politics. Environmentalists are appeased. The plan isn't dead, which should blunt the inevitable "job-killing government socialist machine!" meme. And because the plan isn't dead, and the final decision will fall into the next president's lap, angry progressives have another reason to fight for Obama's re-election.

Solar activity hits seven-year high

Solar cycle 24 continues to ramp up, as expected. When La Nina falters -- it's now expected to persist through the middle of 2012 -- temperature records will fall. Until then, enjoy another data set following the trajectory predicted by scientists based on a model.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Graph of the day

Via Skeptical Science:

The BEST reanalysis in a nutshell. You think global warming has stopped? There you go.

A hundred million batteries for our power grid

The loony right's frequent lament:
So-called green energy often is not very green and cannot possibly serve as a substitute for most fossil fuels. Windmills and solar panels are far more expensive than coal and gas; their production is intermittent, unreliable and largely unstorable [sic].  Because of the physics of the electrical grid, wind and solar can never produce more than about 18 percent of electrical production — at least not until low-cost storage devices are developed.
Technology doesn't stand still; whilst fossil fuel apologists are bemoaning an "intermittency problem" that could really ramp up if we had ten times as much renewable power on the grid as actually exists(*), bright engineers are already installing work-arounds.

From the NYTimes:

As a result, the Bonneville Power Administration, the wholesale supplier to a broad swath of the region, turned this year to a strategy common to regions with hot summers: adjusting volunteers’ home appliances by remote control to balance supply and demand.

When excess supply threatens Bonneville’s grid, an operator in a control room hundreds of miles away will now dial up a volunteer’s water heater, raising the thermostat by 60 more degrees. Ceramic bricks in a nearby electric space heater can be warmed to hundreds of degrees.

The devices then function as thermal batteries, capable of giving back the energy when it is needed. Microchips run both systems, ensuring that tap-water and room temperatures in the home hardly vary.
 I'm guessing the efficiency of the system is not great, especially since they are using "found" materials and not purpose-built components. But even a small amount of energy storage, multiplied by the number of water heaters and home heating systems in the US, could add up to a large reserve of stored power.

On the other end of the spectrum, power companies are experimenting with power storage attached to the site, allowing them to manage surges and lulls in demand.

Of course, a extensive North American backbone of HVDC lines could render such adaptations unnecessary by combining the output of thousands of sources and the averaged demand of tens of millions of customers.

Fearmongering, denial of the possibility of technological progress, disbelief in our capacity to adapt and overcome obstacles -- isn't that kinda the mentality the right likes to accuse "greens" of falling into? I thought they were supposed to be the troubadours of technological optimism and faith in human progress? I'm so confused.

* Current power from wind and solar is about 3.3%

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Overpopulation as "international socialist" conspiracy

We hit seven billion last week, as per the UN Population Division. Until recently, the world's population was expected to top out at about nine billion and slowly decline. More recent estimates, however, have the population continuing to rise to ten billion and potentially to keep rising (albeit much more slowly) from there.

This is a problem at our present level of development. While we have enough food and water for seven billion people if it were equally distributed, it isn't equally distributed, and it isn't likely to become so in the future. To produce that food and make use of that fresh water, farmers all our the world are using unsustainable practices, from deforestation to overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.

Because of that, even though technology will improve in the future, we don't know if those improvements will keep pace with the degradation of soil, the pollution and depletion of groundwater, the erosion and salinization of coastal lands, the droughts and heat waves of the 21st century. We can reliably expect that, all other things being equal, we will get better at producing food, but meanwhile the physical environment upon which we depend to make food will be becoming significantly more hostile because of our actions. And our food production needs not only to keep pace with these developments, but grow significantly in spite of them.

Of course the savants of WUWT have a simple explanation for all this:
The international socialists see all of this. They figure out: if we can develop an agenda through academia to be followed by the seemingly benevolent, above-the-fray NGOs, then we develop the scholarly agenda of “rights” and “global warming,” then we can feed the govt the science, and tell the govt who to fund to act on the science.

So, the intl socialists have to make up some crises. “Overpopulation,” “reproductive rights,” “global warming,” “pandemic,” etc.
 Yes, just like global warming and disease, overpopulation is a fake problem invented by international socialists to advance their secret agenda via their sinister organs, the NGOs(*).

Concerns about overpopulation are sometimes ad-hom'd to a desire for eugenics or a generally murderous, life-hating outlook:

I maintain that Bonnie Erbe's dopey tribute to Attenborough, "Meanwhile, population explosion ignored" (Courier Times, March 18) reveals "disguised form" eugenics. As Erbe herself notes, "Attenborough points out what I agree with him has become an 'absurd taboo' on speaking out publicly on human population growth and trying to do something about it."
. . .
Erbe parrots Attenborough's hateful bile, which is not even disguised! It would behoove Bonnie Erbe and Sir David to step out of their limos and visit a library.
They would benefit by opening a book once in a while, as there have been many notable ones - AFTER Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
The logic here (and I use the term loosely) seems to be that if you like people, you want more people, and if you don't want more people, you hate people and you want them to die. The concept that people are nifty but that too many of them could get in each other's way is too subtle, it would seem.

A global population of ten billion people is concerning. Much like what we are doing to the planet's climate at the same time, ten billion humans represent a condition which our civilization has never seen (see the graph above). If they generated greenhouse gases at the same rate per capita as people today, you're talking about a 42% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time you have a 42% increase in the calories we need to sustain that population. At before you start tilling new fields to feed them, you may want to consider where three Chinas worth of people are going to live.

Since we need more housing and more food, you may want to cut down some forests. Before you do, however, you'd be well advised to read some of the recent literature on terrestrial carbon sinks: "An analysis of inventory data from across the globe suggests that temperate and boreal forests accounted for the majority of the terrestrial carbon sink over the past two decades."

The more people we have, the more difficult it will be to reverse course on greenhouse gas emissions. This is doubly so because many of those new people are going to be born in Sub-Saharan Africa, already the poorest region of the world, and the region expected to experience the most dramatic warming outside the polar regions:

Still, one can make a case that we will be able to cope with overpopulation:
For more than 40 years, climaxing around the first Earth Day, the public has been bombarded with apocalyptic tales of disaster regarding population growth. Paul Ehrlich, for example, a Stanford professor, prominent prophet of population doom and contributor to this op-ed article, predicted in his 1968 bestseller "The Population Bomb" that millions of people would die of starvation during the 1970s because the Earth's inhabitants would multiply at a faster rate than the world's ability to supply food. Six years later, in "The End of Affluence," a book he co-authored with his wife, Anne Ehrlich, the death toll estimates increased to a billion dying from starvation by the mid-1980s. By 1985, Ehrlich predicted, the world would enter a genuine era of scarcity. 
Paul Ehrlich's predicted famines never materialized. While too many people remain hungry, agricultural advances have fought off massive famines. Even as the world's population doubled, per-capita food consumption in poor countries increased from 1,932 calories a day in 1961 to 2,650 in 1998, and malnutrition in those countries fell from 45% of the population in 1949 to about 18%. Furthermore, fertility rates dropped from about five children per woman in the 1960s to about 2.5 today.
 I like how the author drops in that bit about falling fertility -- hey, overpopulation isn't a problem, and anyway, birth rates are falling.

Of course part of the reason birth rates are falling is that some governments, like China's, have actively sought to slow population growth, while other have benefited from rapidly falling birthrates as their people became wealthier and more educated. The collapse of the Soviet Union also led to plummeting birth rates in that part of the world.

It's always going to be possible, in retrospect, to identify wildly overstated or otherwise inaccurate predictions, but we shouldn't conclude, without evidence, that those predictions were universal or  even typical. The same author who fillets Ehrlich toss in this old canard:
[C]oncerns about climate change have shifted from cooling to warming since the 1970s.
Hopefully everyone knows that myth has been repeatedly debunked. Which reminds us to be cautious when someone pulls out an old, inaccurate prediction and asks us to make a number of leaps:

1. That the prediction is being fairly represented.
2. That reality is not different because the warning was heeded (many anti-science folks try to gin up outrage about the "acid rain scare" ignoring the fact that the threat didn't materialize because effective action was taken to mitigate and then reverse the damage.)
3. That the prediction is typical of predictions made at the time.
4. That "those people" making predictions then are similar/the same to "those people" making predictions now (and hence their failures "then" speak to their credibility "now").

That said, I think the author has a point. The green movement does have a history of saying intemperate things. The modern green movement has been largely supported and championed by the left (something of which the left can be proud), and the left has a long history of underestimating the adaptive power of capitalism. Hence leftists of many stripes, from Karl Marx on down, have imagined capitalism collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions in a terrible and glorious smash-up.

That is not going to happen, and those of us who acknowledge the problem of global warming, and the related problem of overpopulation, should make it as clear as possible that that is not our goal. The goal is to use the tremendous productive, inventive and adaptive power of capitalism, not hobble it. This requires a system in which democracy guides money a little bit, rather than money leading democracy by the nose. Markets are a powerful creation, but they are a creation, and they are an expression of human law, not natural law. So to work effectively they need a certain amount of regulation. The pursuit of the individual good will often contribute to the social good, but there are important exceptions. The right-wing climate denial movement would like to equate regulation with central planning and central planning with totalitarianism. Those working to move society towards coping with global warming should not help them by making global warming a proxy fight over the virtues or the sins of a market economy.

* The hostility right-wingers feel towards non-governmental organizations is quite interesting from a philosophical perspective. You'd think that something with "non-governmental" right in the name would appeal to them. The whole "small government" thing assumes that once we "starve the beast" all sorts of voluntary non-governmental organizations will spring up to vaccinate children, clean sewage, sponsor libraries and and provide free education. Private charity is thought to be ready to replace collective action in public good decided upon by our elected representatives.

Yet people actually self-organizing to do good outside the government model are reviled. Corporations are the only nongovernmental organizations of which they approve. Could it be that what they really want is a tyranny of money over people?