Saturday, March 31, 2007

Denialism dot com

On cue, following my discussion of science and politics, which noted the similarity between global warming deniers, creationists, anti-vaccine and anti-animal testing movements and so on, I find the blog, dealing, in some detail with much the same issues, with a couple of differences.

In particular deals with the methods of denialists: conspiracy theories, selective use of evidence, fake experts, impossible expectations and faulty logic. doesn't mention, as I did, alternative medicine, anti-GM food and perpetual motion. It is explained here that there isn't the same kind of organised denialism going on for alternative medicine. I guess largely this is correct, alternative medicine is interested in asserting its own efficacy, and not so much attacking the efficacy of conventional medicine. But it may be a close call.

GM food seems to be off the agenda now, and perpetual motion I suppose is just too silly to spend any time on.'s subjects that I didn't mention are these:
  1. Anti-regulatory/Industry Apologists/Fake Consumer groups/Astroturf
  2. HIV/AIDS Denialism
  3. Stem Cell Denialism/Adult Stem Cell Hype/Fake Bioethicists/Cloning, Eugenics and Euthanasia Paranoids
It wouldn't have occurred to me to include group 1 in this sort of exercise. Arguments over regulation are intensely political on both sides and are rarely made with scientific rigour on either side. One or two commenters have pointed out that there are probably equivalent pro-regulatory deniers around. Still, if people are using the denialist tactics described in political debates then this should be exposed.

Group 2, good point.

Group 3, again surprising. I'm not sure how one might qualify as a fake ethicist - I tend to take the view that we're all ethicists, in the sense that we're all entitled to express our views on ethics, and that all these views matter - the idea of believing what is right or wrong on the authority of an ethicist seems bizarre. Glancing at the sites listed, I would agree that there are some terribly bad arguments being used out there to oppose stem cell research. But I do think - as I said here - it is reasonable for people to argue a position that they have only religious and not scientific reasons for believing. But on the face of it, this does seem to be denialism of a similar quality to the others, so perhaps I am being too generous. Please comment.

Anyway, while we are drifting into the denialisms of politics and ethics as well as those of science, what else could we add to the list? How about denialism of the benefits of free trade?

Remember this is about methods. 1. Conspiracy theories: Anti-traders assert that free trade is just a consipiracy by the rich and powerful to drive down wages and environmental standards. 2. Selectivity: The huge gains in prosperity in Asia-Pacific are ignored. 3. Fake Experts: The New Economics Foundation? 4. Impossible Expectations: Economists all disagree anyway, Economics doesn't work. 5. Bad logic: What ever it is, we're smart enough to make it here. (Being able to make anything doesn't mean we are able to make everything we currently consume, when giving up economies of scale.)

So far, so good, I suppose. But might this work for denying theories that should be denied because they are bunk? Like Marxism:

1. Conspiracy Theories: Anti-marxists assert that Marxists are trying to take over the world. 2. Selectivity: Er, the soviet economic boom from agrarian backwater to superpower in 50 years? 3. Fake Experts: Tories 4. Unrealistic Expectations: Worldwide revolution hasn't happened yet, so Marxism is bunk. 5. Bad logic: Trying to make the world better will only make it worse. (This is an argument you occasionally hear from some on the right who can't be arsed trying to make the world any better. Panglossian rubbish.)

So, while I very much like what is doing, I am also a little underwhelmed. The point to keep aware of is that dealing with the poor arguments in favour of a proposition does not deal with the proposition. is all about identifying and disposing with common poor and deceptive arguments for certain propositions. It is the fact that most perpetrators of these poor arguments don't have any good arguments that deals with their propositions. Why make the weak argument if you have a strong one?

But the arguments that are found in politics, economics and ethics generally are weaker than those found in science, and this makes the approach rather less biting in these fields.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Trap: What happened to our dreams of freedom?

Having missed the first two of these programmes, I was pleased to catch the third. I hope that my profoundest observations on it weren't lost during Desperate Housewives which was on immediately after.

The thesis was, in short, that there was something missing from Isiah Berlin's negative liberty concept, which has led to failures in imposing negative liberty in Russia, Iraq and elsewhere. Cicero provides a good defence of Berlin and negative liberty.

I think you could take Curtis' arguments and arrive at the rather different conclusion that negative liberty just can't be imposed. He makes the point that when it came to the Iraq war, we were so steeped in the culture of self-interest, that we didn't trust Blair and Bush. This is what perhaps led them to fabricate the evidence of a threat from Iraq.

And here's the problem. Freedom suffers if we can't rely on legislators and politicians to be honest brokers, rather than self-interested rational men. And of course we can't rely on anybody not to be self-interested, but we can, if we have elections and a true democratic culture, create the right incentives for politicians and vote out those that fall short.

An attempt to impose negative liberty cannot introduce this kind of check on power. Without democracy, politics becomes corrupt and self-serving whether done in the name of negative liberty, of socialism, of God, or of any other cause you care to mention.

Curtis argues that negative liberty relies on people being self-interested, and that positive liberty seeks to do better than that. But this is wrong. Negative liberty allows people freedom to choose their own values - so long as that doesn't interfere with the freedom of others - and so people are perfectly free to be altruistic without undermining the system. It is positive liberty that makes some reliance on people behaving appropriately and can go wrong when they don't.

The lesson I take from The Trap is not that negative, or positive liberty is prone to fail, but that the imposition of values is prone to fail. The imposition of values is of course against the principles of negative liberty, whether negative liberty is one of the values being imposed or not. Revolutions make things worse. The way to enhance freedom, of either kind, is not to tear down the system, but to reform it incrementally and democratically.

Curtis' description of Pol Pot's murder of the entire Cambodian middle class reminded me of this quote:
As an eco-Marxist I believe that only a socialist society will meet human needs and sustain ecological diversity, politics is based on class struggle, it isn't a matter of changing a few laws we live in a social totality that is utterly destructive and must be replaced.
- Derek Wall, principal speaker of the Green Party
I discuss an alternative approach to environmental problems, offering more freedom, negative and I daresay positive as well, here.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Carbon Offsets: sin or salvation?

Neither of course, but wait for it, I will get there.

Tom Papworth has been writing about carbon offsets, and issue of cap-and-trade versus carbon taxes.

As I have said here before, there is nothing wrong with the principle of offsetting carbon emissions, it is just as good or bad to cause a net emission of a tonne of carbon one way as another. It is quite absurd to suggest that emitting a tonne of carbon here is so irredeemably sinful, that it can't be redeemed by saving a tonne of carbon somewhere else. It is not like offsetting infidelity.

The practise of course is much murkier. The world can't be divided into segments such that each of use is solely responsible for one of them. Tom quotes the economist blog suggesting that "rebound effects" will undo some of the good of offsets spent on wind power. I think this objection is overstated - I would agree with comment 2 on that blog - and, perhaps more to the point, I don't imagine offsetting to be a very precise science in the first place.

Because as I have argued, carbon emissions are bad but not sinful, it follows that offsetting is good but not obligatory - it is superogatory to use the technical term. It is much like making a charitable donation. And of course this means it should compete for attention with other charities, and probably fail. But it does mean that we should be glad that our donation is doing some good, and not worry whether a "rebound effect" is trimming a few percent off. Of course if the rebound effect were big enough to cost most of the benefit, that would be much like the hypothetical charity that spend most of its income on administration - we would look for another charity.

Of course to be brutally frank, I don't think global warming is going to be solved by having a few motivated people make effectively charitable contributions towards offset schemes. I bring the subject up on a political blog because I think that some political action is merited.

Green taxes of course are one such measure, but I don't think they can be made high enough to do the whole job for a couple of reasons:
  • demand for energy is not particularly elastic so the levels of tax would have to be very high to have big effects
  • hardship would result for many people on low incomes - it is important that these people are helped, through for example, being the focus of the tax cuts paid for by the green taxes; but I admit this help won't be perfect
  • there is the problem of competitiveness if domestic production is taxed and imports aren't; applying special taxes to imports to compensate for some (perceived) domestic disadvantage is the sort of thing that upsets trade wonks terribly. But it would need to be done if the effect of the policy isn't simply to be the offshoring of production and therefore of carbon emissions.
So, actually, Tom, as well as green taxes, a bit of "pork" poured into green energy is just what I would like to see. The technology works, and if it can be made cost competitive the market will do the rest. And, once the technology is competitive, or nearly so, international agreements on reducing carbon emissions will be much easier to reach.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Science and Politics

What do the following have in common:
  • The belief that global warming is a myth
  • The belief that we are not descended from the same ancestors as chimpanzees and gorillas, but were, as a species, created by God, more or less as we are
  • The belief that vaccines are dangerous and do more harm than good
  • The belief that animal experiments are inimical to good science, producing more misleading results than good results
  • The belief that genetically modified food is inherently dangerous (i.e. dangerous by virtue of being GM)
  • Belief in the clinical efficacy of a whole range of alternative and complementary therapies - that they frequently work as well as or better than scientific medicine, but somehow need to be judged by different standards (i.e. randomised controlled trials do not apply here)
  • Belief in the possibility of perpetual motion
  • Belief that a gyroscope correctly inclined will generate lift and hence be able to power effectively free flight
  • ...
The common factor is that they all dispute mainstream science, they all require belief in a conspiracy of scientists, or at the very least blinkered groupthink among scientists. And in every case, the debate is taken to the public sphere, scientists are denounced, and appeals are made to trust some other authority.

Now while I would dismiss all the beliefs that I have listed, there is a problem here. What are you supposed to do if you do honestly disagree with the scientific consensus, and you think that consensus is leading to bad policy decisions? I will criticise the likes of Durkin, (yes I am linking to Monbiot, although he probably believes half the anti-science above) and the creationists, for bypassing the difficult science and making shallow arguments to the public. But I recognise that they don't have a lot of choice. Our laypersons understanding of the scientific position is also fairly shallow. Of course I am not equating shallow truths with shallow lies, but the fact remains that many believers are sincere, and we can hardly damn them for lying.

Few of these anti-science lobbies have the resources to do any research of their own - global warming deniers are perhaps an exception - and even if they did, they may publish a few papers, which would go as unnoticed as almost all scientific papers are.

But it is entirely possible that science will get things wrong from time to time, and that there will be brave souls battling the groupthink. It is possible, say, that the second event theory, is true. It predicts higher cancer risks than normally recognised from particular radio-isotopes, and hence a greater risk from nuclear industry emissions compared with background radiation. It looks unlikely, but it is good that it has its advocates plugging away.

The question is how we conduct the public debate. How do we make informed democratic decisions, given that most of us would struggle to understand all the science, and that those of us who could understand it probably don't have the time. This is not really a new problem - we are also mostly not economists, not clinicians, not teachers, not police, not manufacturers, not retailers, not politicians. Yet in a democracy we have to make judgements about the work of professionals in all these fields - at least those in the public sector.

How do we do it? I guess we muddle through. We judge success and failure rather than effort, and, hopefully thereby incentivise effort. We punish dishonesty when we see it. What I would like to suggest is that the evidential standards of science are our friends in this attempt to muddle through. We would be wrong to let doctrine trump evidence. We would be right to change our minds when the evidence demands it. We would be right to be suspicious of anyone, Mr Blair, who seems to regard their personal sense of conviction as a kind of evidence. We would do well to recognise that our desires and values colour our evaluation of evidence, and that this can progressively suck an intelligent person into fringe crackpot theories, religious cults and so on.

And so how should we evaluate the work of scientists - and the work of those who accuse scientists of groupthink? By the same standards. Are they being honest? Are they doing the hard work or are they playing to the gallery? Are they paying attention to the evidence? Are they making claims that are falsifiable?

Are they using ad-hoc hypotheses to defend a bad position? Of course one man's ad hoc hypothesis is another's refinement of a good theory, and there is no substitute for good judgement. Suppose you want to argue that solar wind causes clouds causes global cooling, and that this effect has not been recognised leading to errors in climate modelling. There has to be something going for this theory other than that it allows you to claim the climate models are wrong. If that's all there is, you are clearly just pursuing an agenda, but if the theory explains other evidence as well then it may be a useful refinement. But it is always going to be possible to come up with theories like that, that can be used to attack a rival position, but which don't add any value. As philosophers occasionally like to point out, we can't prove that the whole world wasn't made 10 minutes ago complete with our memories and evidence of the past. But the defendant who tried to argue along these lines "no I didn't rob the bank last week, the universe was only created 10 minutes ago", would not be very successful, and rightly so.

Science will still make mistakes of varying degrees. This is unaviodable. But anybody who argues that because scientists can make mistakes we should instead believe that they are right and the scientists are wrong is not making a credible argument. What distinguishes the sciences is that they have all these tools for finding and correcting errors. What distinguishes crackpots is that they have thrown all these tools away.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Global Warming: Panic, Panic Over, Panic Again...

The Great Global Warming Swindle

The thing is I didn't see the programme. I saw essentially the same programme by the same maker from 1997. They had to apologise after that one, and I wonder if that will happen again.

The thesis is summarised here and unpicked here. Bad science also gives it a mention despite, wisely, avoiding green stuff in his column as a rule.

For a rather more mature contrarian polemic I would recommend Bjorn Lomborg's The Skeptical Environmentalist. This book attracted a lot of criticism - much of it justified - for challenging environmental agendas. But it illustrates what can be done if you select your evidence in order to prosecute a particular case, rather than taking on board all the evidence and trying to find out what is actually going on. Even Lomborg, however does not deny global warming. He suggests we shouldn't worry about it too much, arguing that there are more pressing problems.

It is in the nature of science that you can always ask why, you always take some piece of evidence and take it apart and ask whether the assumptions behind it are correct, whether the methodology was sound, and so on and so forth. Karl Popper famously said that science is not built on rock - rock is not available - it is built on mud, but we can drive the piles as deeply into the mud as we like - that is to say we can keep questioning and examining and nitpicking as long as we like. Science never stops the questions by saying that something is off limits.

What this means when it comes to the use of science in political discourse, unfortunately, is that we are all inclined to accept at face value the evidence that we like, and nit pick the evidence we don't. The Monbiots of the world are perhaps as guilty of this as the Lomborgs and the global warming deniers.

Lomborg's narrative is that things are pretty good and getting better, and in many respects he is right. The evidence he backs this up with show some particular things getting better, and I daresay some of that is sound. Polemically that works, but scientifically there is no case made: "things are getting better" is just to vague to substantiate or refute. Lomborg picks some nits with the IPCC work, but all in one direction, all to argue for a lower global warming impact. This is a good sign of a work being polemical rather than truth-seeking. Of course this sort of work does no harm to the science - criticism can only improve science, if some assumption is poor or some methodology is unsound, this can be addressed. Scientifically we should be glad that there are nitpickers on both sides. Politically, Lomborg caused some justifiable outrage.

The Great Global Warming Swindle goes beyond nitpicking with misdirection and suggestions of conspiracies. This is of course not helpful - some people have completely lost interest in the evidence because they have concluded that their opponents are acting out of evil, and there is some vast mainstream conspiracy to destroy the environment/economy (delete according to preference).

The creationism/intelligent design movement holds a very similar view towards the science of biology. They make much of the fact that scientific theories may turn out to be mistaken. Of course none of their reasons for thinking that evolution is mistaken stand up to scrutiny - although they don't seem to have noticed that. And even though you could say Einstein showed Newton was mistaken, you could say he showed Newton was 99.99% right.

If you take evidence about sunspots or natural sources of carbon dioxide, all well known to climatologists, and included in the models, and present that to the public as if it were something new: "See! this is the real cause!", you will mislead, and deliberately so. Sober science takes all the factors affecting global temperature trends and tries to understand and quantify them. Polemic takes this one or that one and trumpets it.

Believe the latest polemic, and either the world will end tomorrow and the IPCC or the Stern report are blasé, and happy for global warming to happen as long as it can be taxed, or something; or its all a communist-green-nazi conspiracy, blah blah blah. Neither position is conducive to taking the level-headed proportionate measures that are necessary, such as the Green Tax Switch and investing in renewable energy and related technologies.

There is a background level of panic over global warming, and I daresay it is worth attacking, although I don't see it having much influence on policy. The influences that concern for global warming is having on policy are of the level-headed variety. Lomborg, for all his rhetoric, is arguing for the status quo.

Perhaps I am naive, but I think that excessive panic over global warming can be defeated with reason and evidence and truthfulness, and much the same goes for the anti-panic (and anti-reasonable) panic of The Great Global Warming Swindle.

Not panic, nor indifference, but determination is what we need.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Green Lib Dems

I have just witnessed the Sunday morning debates at the Lib Dem spring conference, and - in order not to miss out on this whole 'I am here, look this is me blogging' thing - a bit like the 'hello I'm on the phone' kind of conversation that briefly provided comedians with a little material when mobile phones were fairly new -I thought I would comment briefly, while waiting for Ming's speech.

We debated a pair of good motions on green and prosperous communities and on sustainable housing. The interesting thing is that in both cases we had a speaker from the Green Lib Dems complaining that a) they hadn't been consulted, and b) it didn't go far enough with all the green stuff.

However, as another member of Green Lib Dems, I had no difficulty in supporting both motions. While I agree that wider circulation of draft proposals would always be a good thing, the complaint that there was expertise going unused struggled to hit home. Because the only gems of wisdom offered were additional policy content that was actually quite debatable.

The example that springs to mind was the suggestion of reduced VAT on DIY goods which can be used for energy efficiency enhancing improvements. In one sense this is perhaps all grist to the mill, little measures will add up, etc, etc. On the other hand we are talking about tinkering with an already complex tax, VAT, to slightly reduce the price of a class of goods that might bring energy effiency gains, without, as far as I can see any analysis of how much energy we expect to save, for the known revenue cost and unknown administration cost.

There is a dangerous principle here, that all goods should be assessed for their environmental impacts, including potential impacts depending on what uses they are put to, and that everything from apples to zeppelins has its own tax rate. And surely this tax shouldn't be VAT which is effectively free to most businesses.

A greater purist than I would say that a simple levy on fuel will suffice and the market will determine how much insulation people install. I think this is a fairly reasonable approach to business [with some caveats off the point for this blog], but individual behaviour is more driven by habit than by calculations of costs and benefits. So I think there is a good case for sending signals to individuals, signals such as energy ratings for appliances, and perhaps a few supertaxes on common poor products with good alternatives, such as disposable batteries and incandescent light bulbs.

I don't think reduced VAT on anything comes close to being a clear signal. And assessing individual goods, given the number of different products that exist would be bureaucratic beyond Sir Humphry's wildest dreams.

Simplicity and clarity of signal: these are the keys.

So, anyway this proposal wasn't included in the sustainable housing motion. Not because the drafters hadn't heard of it, I would guess, but because it is a better, clearer motion without it.

Is the party failing to use the green expertise it has? No it is merely failing to agree with a few members of a particular group of enthusiasts. There's no harm in that. Green expertise clearly extends far beyond the Green Lib Dems, and perhaps that group needs to reflect a little on the ways in which it can still add value in a party that understands the environmental cause and has taken it on board.