Wednesday, May 31, 2006

More on context

Browsing across various posts today, I was reminded again of the importance of context to the understanding and interpretation of information. What the majority pick up on in the media are the headlines (which may or may not reflect the trus nature of the story content) and the snippets of written material as they are summarized by radio or TV newscasts.

So, people will pick up on the supposed "fact" that another study has shown yet another common food product to be "carcingenic" and thus something the healthy and sensible should avoid in their diets. Few will dig deep enough to discover that the studies are invalid and that the product's alleged problems are illusory. And don't expect to see a follow up in the media rescinding the alarm.

A similar example exists with the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room which adopts a Micheal Moore approach to its subject: not letting the facts intrude on a pre-conceived explanation. Subsequently, many who see the film will come away missing the opportunity to understand how and why the Enron scandal occurred.

Context requires the consumer of information to individually process what they are hearing or reading through their own set of organizational constructs. If we fail to program our own minds, the prevailing, dominant belief systems will do it for us. Stasis prevails in the absence of context, in the negation of free thought and in the subjugation of individuality.

As the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard stated "People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they never use".

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Development and context: lessons from Africa

Whatever your definition of sustainability, irrespective of what indicators you choose and irregardless of your politics, it is an unequivocal truth that the least sustainable part of the planet today is Africa.

Lately, it has become very fashionable to campaign for Western-led involvement in the Dafur region of Sudan. Many of those same advocates for intervention appear blind to their own hypocrisy in having opposed just such intervention by the US in Iraq. Moreover, those who clamour for more aid and more Western intervention to "help" the struggling Africans would do well to consider this post by Barie Collins on the spiked website concerning Rwanda.

Yes, before Dafur, there was Rwanda (and Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Chad....).

Anyways, if your knowledge up to this point is Hotel Rwanda, or if you've read Romeo Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil, Collins' post and his previous comments on the genocide will provide some much needed depth of perspective.

In Dallaire's book in particular, the politics of the day were often referenced and sketched but, by his own admission, they were both kept closed to Dallaire and outside his purview as a soldier. Part of what haunts Dellaire to this day is a sense of failure, that somehow it was he who let the Rwandans down by not making the world take more notice of things sooner and in a more forceful way. At the same time, Dellaire recognized much was happening to which either he was not made party or he had been deliberately excluded. Certainly his book lays out in explicit detail why any thought of effective UN intervention anywhere is a mirage at best, and an opportunity for corruption and bureaucratic impedence at its worst.

Collins considers the Rwandan genocide to be far from an internally directed and driven affair. Rather, he implicates Western governments, the UN and several NGOs as complicit in the manner by which events took place and the resultant genocide.

Now, he may or may not be right. But what his post does underscore is the crucial role that geographical context plays in any and all development situations and that far too often, people intervene without the necessary understanding of that context: sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes with ulterior motives.

The lesson here is that we are our own project: we can only "fix" ourselves. And, when we seek to aid others, we have to enable them to empower themselves and not invoke our power over them or give others that power to use over them. Empowerment is the act of taking power over your own life: it can not be given to you, it has to be taken yourself. And it is the opposite of what most people recognize as standard operating procedure in politics, which is all about the exercise of power, by those who have, or wish to have, power.

In Africa, as it is in Europe, the US, the UN and NGOs: anywhere there's a bureaucracy allocating money, there's politics and power games.

And in every nation, its always those at the bottom who are expendable to those who "have the big picture in mind". In Rwanda the result of this game was mass genocide. For the last couple of year's the game has been played in Dafur. Where next?

Friday, May 26, 2006

more on climate

Great comment from Steven Milloy today that succinctly summarizes why people continue to doubt the global warming ecomyth:

The problem here is that
  • there has never been any real contention about Earth's mean temperature changing
  • the issue of causation is highly contentious
  • the "consensus" position that atmospheric carbon dioxide is a major driver of global mean temperature is not supported by science, and
  • the notion that tweaking a couple of minor variables -- specifically and principally carbon dioxide emission from fossil fuel use -- will have significant predictable effect on global climate is patently wrong.
That says it about as simply and directly as it can be said.

All that's left to understand is why people continue to offer differing perspectives on climate change: i.e. why do people perist with the myth.

Those who refute Milloy's points above tend to be in three groups:

  • those who are ideologically pre-disposed to see humanity as a "cancer on the planet" and, thus, accept human causation of global warming as axiomatic and pillory any who question its veracity
  • those who benefit individually and institutionally from promotion of "the consensus" and, thus, use their positions of presumed authority to intimidate and belittle those who are not part of that consensus, and
  • those who use the presumption of a scientific "consensus" as added justification for the "correct" morally accepted stance of ideological environmentalism and, thus, advocate the necessity for political action now (Kyoto, promotion of wind power, etc.) even though such actions have little evidence to indicate their efficacy.

And then, of course, we have the media. But that's a whole other post.

Monday, May 22, 2006

TCS Daily - Bureaucrats Helping the Poor? Or Themselves?

Here is a plan, an idea to think about, intended to eliminate poverty. And here is Tim Worstall's thoughtful discussion of who might favour such a plan and who might be opposed.

To me this is dynamist thinking at its best. See a problem and rather than analyze it endlessly (as is the standard stasis response of academia, government and NGOs), let's look at the problem starting from a blank page. Now everyone talks about thinking 'outside of the box', its just that so few actually do it.

So poverty. Let's cancel all existing government programs addressing social inequality and re-direct that money by giving everyone a lump sum payment every year. By definition, poverty is eliminated as each citizen starts above the poverty line each year, free of bureaucratic encumbrance and able to determine their own welfare.

Or waste. Let's do full cost accounting, add up how much waste costs us per year and then how much does reclycling cost us if each household spends just one hour per week in the sorting of waste into differing categories (and we won't even add in the subsidies for unwanted, unwarranted and unused recyclables)? We may just find out that recycling is not only ineffective, its also grossly ineffecient. (More on this in another post I think).

As Worstall writes, you can tell a lot about a person's true purpose in governance and advocacy by their response to such blue sky thinking. Next we might even get to a flat tax for all citizens with no exemptions: imagine, just pay 10% of what you earn, no lawyers, no tax code, no centralized audits....imagine.

Interesting, when you float these kind of ideas for discussion, is how few people can actually conceive of their implementation as they are so inoculated with the statist approach to all governance that they have lost the ability to think for themselves. Just like fleas in a flea circus or an elephant tethered by a small rope: frozen into accepting limits that can't possibly confine their potential strength but enough to paralyze the mind into acquiescence.

As one of my favourite Larson cartoon proclaims: "we don't have to be just sheep!"

Sunday, May 21, 2006

TCS Daily - An Economy of Davids

Today was the middle of the May long weekend in Canada, the traditional "start" of the summer cottage season. In some parts of Southern Ontario, it snowed. I don't suspect the various media will comment on this event as "evidence" that global warming is not occurring. Nor should they, as weather and climate are two distinct entities. But I do wonder, if the temperatures had been in the high 20s C. how many stories would have appeared about the "warmest" May holiday weekend on record, etc..

The media are highly selective about what they report and the school system is even more set in what it teaches. Therefore, we should not be surprised that many ecomyths persist long past their due date: long after real facts are in evidence that not only dispute the myth but utterly defeat it.

As is the case with Keynesian economics and its later popularization by Galbraith. As I posted earlier this month (May 6), Galbraith was more moralist than economist, which is part of his enduring popularity with environmentalists, particularly those who don't wish to acknowledge that the world has changed and that change continues faster than ever. Many don't like it and/or fail to understand it: and, what we don't understand we seek to deny or destroy.

Critiquing is easy. Envisioning alternatives, being creative and understanding future change is hard. Which is why so few attempt to do it and even fewer are successful. Today's post gives an excellent introduction and context to the impact on economy of technology, especially the trends underpinning the present era of globalization. Trends that negate the stasist theory of economics and constitute the dynamics of contemporary global change.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Sickening incompetence: the ecomyth as eco-imperialism

Today's discussion is a tough one because it evokes a lot of strong emotions and no small component of incredulity: once people read a little and dig a little deeper for themselves, they are either shocked at what they find or become vehemently defensive of the dogma they have been fed up to this point. The topic is the epidemic of malaria in Africa and its continued proliferation primarily due to the ecomyth that surrounds DDT.

As a primer, some excellent recent articles can be found here, here and here.

There's more on Driessen's website plus these links to Africa Fighting Malaria and the Malaria Foundation International.

Those not familar with the topic can come up to speed with this quick introduction to the issues and this new multimedia site meant for raising public awareness of the situation in Africa today. Both are easy reads and highly accessible for use by educators in classroom discussion.

Bottom line is this: Africa has a malaria epidemic that kills millions every year, especially young children. Those on the front line of the fight against malaria want to eradicate the disease the way we did: cheaply and effectively. Inside spraying of homes using DDT will accomplish this. Scientifically there is no sound reason not to do so. The only barrier is one induced and popularized by Western environmentalists: the ecomyth that DDT and other pesticides cause cancer in humans and denigrate the natural environment. The ecomyth as eco-imperialism.

Monday, May 15, 2006

TCS Daily - Soda Pop Myopia

Great little article with a lot of implications. As it points out, once again politics predominates over science. The wider implication that also is drawn are the impacts of having government regulate choice rather than the educational option of trusting individuals to choose for themselves and empowering them to do so. That would require an educational system where science takes precedence over politics: but then that would mean no more ecomyths.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

World Climate Report: Setting the Record Straight

One of the unfortunate features of ecomyth discussion is the habit for them to be personalized. The late Julian Simon suffered greatly from ad hominem attacks and most of the criticisms of Bjorn Lomborg and The Sceptical Environmentalist have exhibited the same characteristics and tactics: which is somewhat ironic, since Lomborg set out to "correct" the errors of Simon only to largely confirm his findings. Lomborg's "mistake" was to publish his findings in a best-selling book that gave people the facts and asked them to determine for themselves if the state of the world was improving or not. He then faced the very same criticisms as Simon from ideologues who 'refuse to allow themselves to be bewildered by the facts. Instead, they simply reject the facts and deride anyone who presents' them.

Late in his life, Simon reflected upon the extensive ad hominen attacks he had received and he wrote:

'One cannot argue with personal attacks. One can, however, attempt to explain them. Concerning the purpose of the attacks, I see them as a device for marginalizing, devilizing, and thereby dismissing from consideration people like me so that their ideas should not be taken seriously.' (Simon: A reply to my critics)

I am especially frustrated when environment "goes Hollywood" -- usually when a well-meaning celebrity "discover" an issue, lends their name and media currency to promoting "greater awareness" of that issue. Since the main expertise of any celebrity is media manipulation, it is unsurprising that celebrity endorsement of any environmental issue usually has more than a smidgen of hype, exaggeration and mis-understanding attached to it.

This link from the World Climate Report shows that celebrities are often guilty of hypocrisy -- asking others to do what they themselves do not. In this case, a minor celeb is questioning the personal scientific credentials of a well-known climate change sceptic, when she herself has no formal science background. Truly galling.

Its at times like these you remember what your grandmother taught you as a child: "people in glass houses shouldn't throw bricks".

Thursday, May 11, 2006

spiked-essays | Who's afraid of economic growth?

Here is a wonderful essay by Daniel Ben-Ami on growth and the pervasiveness of "growth scepticism" that underscores so much of contemporary politics and especially ideological environmentalism.

In many ways Daniel's discussion underscores how pernicious the influence of moralists such as Galbriath has been on public policy and helps us to understand how and why ecomyths persist despite clear empirical science to the contrary.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Pesticides and Cancer

An ongoing issue in London, Ontario (where I work) has been the continued attempts by strident activists to ban the cosmetic use of pesticides, particularly by commercial lawn landscapers. This is advocated on the basis that there is compelling science "linking" pesticides to cancer and that on public health and environmental grounds, pesticides should be banned. In this advocacy, local groups are following in a long tradition of urban environmental activists seeking to ensure public health. That this issue persists is a direct reflection of the fact that most environmental activists act on beliefs founded more in dogma than real science. The key to all environmental health studies is that the dose makes the poison. Anything taken in isolation and sufficient quantity can be shown to be detrimental to one's health, or that of a lab rat: even supposed healthy and organic substances.

The unfortunate consequence of the developed world's obsessive fear of all things chemical, is that it is having severe real-world health repercussions in the third world, particularly Africa and the continued scourge of malaria there. That environmental activists prefer to advocate banning safe lawn pesticides to tackling malaria in Africa represents what Paul Driessen refers to as eco-imperialism.

Audit to show waste in environment plans

This latest revelation should not come as a surprise, after all this was the same government that wasted over $2 billion on a gun registry that doesn't even encompass hand guns. Irrespective of politics, by definition most government-initiated programs on environment are primarily programs that promote more government. As pointed out by Easterbrook in his book A Moment on the Earth, academics and NGOs push for environmental regulation, the media trumpet that message as "news" and the government responds by implementing government programs that largely fund academics and NGOs who provide further "evidence" of the need for such interventions -- a nice mutually re-enforcing cycle.

The challenge for most people is to begin thinking of how environmental objectives can be obtained without large, wasteful government programs. Peter Huber set out a viable option in his book Hard Green but many find his rhetorical style heavy handed and miss the point that he is writing in exactly the same style as the eco-activists he is challenging.

So the default in most public policy arenas remains ineffecient and often ineffective government management programs, mostly because too many people are inured to accepting this as the only option and have little or no experience with any alternatives.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

TCS Daily - No Smog for the Fear Factory?

As a follow up to my earlier posting on ozone, here are the latest numbers on ozone smog levels. The good news is they are down. The bad news is for those activists who want to use fears of low level ozone and smog as a rationale for Kyoto-style restrictions on private cars: there is nothing to fear.

So don't feel guilty for what you drive. You drive what you can afford -- economics makes for effective conservation. But if you have the income and like to drive an SUV, a luxury car or a truck, go ahead, its your choice. And if riding public transit or cycling to work makes you feel morally superior, that's o.k. too but don't try to pass any guilt over to me because I don't. Environmentally there's no difference.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Climate change not global warming

So lets look at climate change as it is the predominant, prevailing ecomyth for this decade. Phillip Stott in a series of excellent summaries, has referred to climate change as "the grand narrative" that embraces several contingent components of contemporary eco-discourse: including pollution, limits to growth, sustainability, anti-Americanism and other neo-liberal deconstructions of capitalism and consumerism.

Simply put, the political myth of global warming is contingent on the science of climate change for its validity.

So what is the science? On the junkscience website a nice summation of the science of climate change is presented and there are excllent summaries posted here, here and here.

Climate is always changing. It is a dynamic process, with a host of complex inter-relationships, many of which are poorly understood. What is clear is that temperatures are neither abnormal nor unprecedented today, unless we apply an a priori moral and political assumption that all change on the planet is caused by humans: which, of course is the basis for contemporary environmental ideology -- but its not science. What we know scientifically is much more limited and has been summarized in accessible language by Richard Lindzen, here and here.

So we have a nascent science: a fact only revealed when those outside the inner circle of practitioners ask questions and hold that science to account.

The "debate" around climate change has been slow to evolve and has often embraced an abundance of personalized and acrimonious exchanges. Some have attempted to broaden the consideration of climate change into a wider discussion of how science is incorporated into public policy. But for the most part, discussion has become polarized, with calls by some experts for governments abandon the present political aspects of global warming, while others appeal for enhanced funding of these same initiatives. Those who advocate caution and are unconvinced about claims of human-induced catastrophe due to climate change are usually dismissed as "skeptics". Those who support the assertions of global warming and advocate government-imposed sanctions on the economy to suppress this supposed doomsday refer to themselves as "the scientific consensus". The skeptics remain thus as they tend to view the science of climate change as being distinct from the ideologies of political policy. Those asserting a scientific concensus in favour of global warming tend to do so as they see no such distinction. They are the scientists and they know best. Their science should be our policy. Because theirs is the truth and the way.

And so, climate change is less a question of science, subject to and open to the normal rules of refutation and conjecture. Rather it has become the standard opiate of environmentalism and it is essential dogma for those who seek to follow its religion.

But for those for whom ideology and science are distinct spheres, climate change holds no fears.

Myths of the History of Ozone Policy

One of the sites I monitor regularly is the Prometheus blog run by Roger Pielke and his colleagues at the Colorado Center for Science and Technology Policy Research. I quite often find myself in disagreement but the posts are always well written and provoke thought -- two admirable qualities for a blog. Often the postbacks (the discussion by readers) are a lot of fun and very illuminating. Sadly, a few readers seem to sit on the site and a lot of discussion ends up re-hashing old (personal) debates but within the rhetoric are the core features present in most "discussions" of ecomyths, and their genesis is in the 5 questions Pielke poses about ozone and the popular perception surrounding its "management", see:

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Reason: American Scold: Galbraith invented a modern archetype

A wonderful analysis of J.K. Galbraith's unfortunate legacy: as a moralist, not economist.

This discussion melds well with the earlier works posted on ecoNOT by Bidinotto, particularly his pieces on individualism versus environmentalism and that on the weak moral foundation of prevailing environmental ideology.
Taken in conjunction, these writing point to the heart of contemporary ecomyths: that they assert a moral supremacy that they lack and they fail to integrate real-world (i.e. sustainable) economics.

ecoEnquirer: Environmental News That Will Make You Smile

For those who like to use humour as a tool for thought, there are the folks at Ecoenquirer:
Its my observation that the more zealous people become in their advocacy of any particular ideology, the less humour they exhibit.

The Critical Thinking Community

Here is a wonderful resource on learning how to think critically i.e. thinking for yourself and not just what others tell you to think.

Other devices that assist people with thinking include those referred to as part of instructional intelligence and include the use of mind maps and concept mapping.

These ideas represent
new horizons for learning
and a part of a worldwide movement towards more effective learning through more effective teaching and instruction: with a focus on how to learn and not just on the recall of what you've been told. What you can Google you don't have to remember!

More on how I link these educational tools and ideas to the application of instructional intelligence in the use of dynamism to assess ecomyths to follow.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Dynamism as an approach to change

Change is inevitable: only growth is an option. This aphorism accurately conveys the dilemma facing both individuals and societies at the onset of a new millennium. Lately, it appears as if both the scale and pace of change have been increasing. Individually and collectively, people have found this change to be problematical. For many there is a profound sense of unease stemming from a lack of control, an absence of suitable guidelines and an apparent erosion of stability. Widespread fear of the unknown and the undiscovered has become the lifeblood of populist culture. Almost imperceptibly, the future has been transformed into society’s biggest nightmare. Rather than embrace the future with optimism, hope and ambition, most now have acquiesced to an overwhelming barrage of bad news and pessimism about the future.
This division of perspective has been excellently characterized by
Postrel (1998) as the difference between stasis and dynamism. Stasis implies a regulated, controlled balance that originates with a command and control, technocratic approach to governance and the desire to implement a prescribed, reactionary sense of stability. In contrast, dynamism reflects a belief in the possible, in constant creativity, fluidity and a balance that is characterized by a freely-evolving equilibrium. Primary criteria under dynamism are resiliency and adaptability.
Stasis and dynamism define contrasting belief systems that differentiate widely different paths regarding the determination of wisdom. They offer radically different definitions of (a) the need for change, (b) the nature of that change, and (c) the barriers/constraints to change. Stasists envision change as a prescribed, stable balance. Thus, stasist social criticism presents a critique that censures on the presumption that the failure to realize an equitable outcome is the fundamental failing of the defined crisis. In contrast, dynamists recognize change as an adaptive, evolving equilibrium. Consequently, a dynamist perspective focusses on the development of new options based on the application of value-based questions that emphasize equity in opportunity.
By default, the dominant paradigm in education (especially in areas of public policy) is stasist in both construct and method. Lectures, intellectual hegemony and political correctness are all characteristics of stasist conformity. Students are tested and succeed in proportion to their ability to memorize and repeat the dominant litany of the professoriate, whose primary task is to impart information.
Dynamism offers an intellectual alternative wherein the educational emphasis is on active learning and individual empowerment. Students are neither required nor examined on their ability to accept pre-conceived prescriptions. Rather they are encouraged to develop their own understanding and creativity. They are evaluated on their ability to successfully comprehend, articulate and communicate their knowledge. The educational challenge posed by dynamism is the effective facilitation of the skills and understanding necessary for the students to realize their creativity.