Monday, January 29, 2007

The blogosphere

Why the blogosphere? Here is an interesting post that examines who reads blogs and why. These questions are of great concern to those in the media (who fear losing their control over the flow of information in society) and also to those in academia (who fear losing their control over education).

The emphasis should not be on control so much as on the free flow and expression of ideas. Society has gone down this road before. The advent of the printing press allowed people to be readers and consumers of information. The beautiful thing about the Internet is that it allows people to be their own publisher and it requires that people be their own editor of the information they can access. The burgeoning blogoshpere reflects the fact that a lot of people have ideas they want others to share. It is also proof that the individual must edit for themselves what they chose to read and adopt as their own opinion and what they read but by-pass, and what to ignore all together. Again, those with a stasist mind set will always advocate for some sort of controls "in the best interest" of others, the masses obviously being too stupid to to trusted to edit for themselves. Conversely, the blogosphere, unregulated, free and uncensored, is living testament that the masses can and do filter information for themselves, determine who and what to trust and what ideas they can use to improve their lives.

For intellectuals who aspire to exert power over society, the blogosphere is a threat to their traditional control over the media and education. The blogosphere offers both an unprecedented opportunity for individuals to share their opinions and a free market for the immediate expression of competing ideas. By anyone. No credentials, no little societies nor clubs with committees to vet members and restrict access to the "right" people.

The blogoshpere is indeed most threatening to intellectuals as its only real metric for sustainability is the credibility of the ideas, the very intellectualism that it expresses. How very refreshing.

What is different does not have to divide

Freedom is essential for development. Despite the empirical evidence that clearly supports this premise, political freedom is not freely nor or easily obtained. It is also an ideology the rests on the responsibility and empowerment of the individual, an anathema to many counter ideologies with powerful dogmas that require personal supplication and submission but not personal engagement, action nor sacrifice. Here is an interesting post which highlights how ideology infuses development, societal relations and the prospects for global sustainability.

As the comment points out, the conundrum with democracy is that it "is well-suited for determining what a majority of the voters in a polity want. It does very little, however, to ensure that what they want is the right thing, or even in their best interests."

Forget global warming. The major barrier to global sustainability is not any environmental constraint, nor is it any economic limitation: no the predominant limitation on sustainability is our inability to successfully grapple with deeply contrasting values in the determination of global governance. Often masked by religious dogma and mis-represented as an ethnic conflict, the differences reflect pronounced and fundamentally distinct world views: ideologies that are different but don't have to be divisive. Sadly, as long as differences exist, someone, somewhere will seek to exploit people's fears and ignorance's as a means to exert power in the name of ideological supremacy.

The irony (or lunacy) of this situation is, of course, that the differing ideologies are at their core and in principle, distinct but not contrasting at all.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The automobile as ecomyth

Ecomyths have in common a moral crusade wrapped within a sheen of scientific necessity: a perfect example is the continued efforts to demonize the automobile, a feature of great passion for many in the developed world and a source of aspiration for many in developing nations. A recent post, highlights some of the common misperceptions and allegations about the automobile as ecomyth.

Front and center is the point that what galls most people about the automobile: it is an icon of personal freedom and as such it is a constant target for those stasists who believe that entrusting decision to the individual is a sure path to damnation. Conversely, those of us who belief in individual responsibility and free choice, will continue to embrace the automobile as a both a symbolic and practical expression of that freedom.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

More on Climate Change

Ahead of the IPCC report there will be an increase in the amount of media attention devoted to climate change in the coming weeks. In contrast to the inflammatory remarks of the IPCC itself (see my earlier post) two recent commentaries offer excellent summations for expert and lay person alike. The first is by Wente and seeks to separate fact from fiction, fears from alternatives. The second is by Emanuel, and it presents a good primer on climate physics, what is known, where the uncertainties come into play, why the science is unclear and what facts are generally agreed upon and where there is a tendency for dogma to emphasize differences.

If all climate debate was as balanced and reasoned as these two articles there might actually be constructive debate that develops reasonable policy options that stand a chance of actually being implemented. Hopefully, the reporting in the next few weeks is in the same vein: at least today there are more and more people calling for a third, more moderate option on climate free of dogma and ideology.

But wait a minute: Wente's article is part of a larger series within the Globe and Mail selling the environment as the new No.1 policy concern of all Canadians: which also so happens to be the new No.1 avowed policy concern of the new leader of the Liberal party in Canada -- the paper's party of choice: so is their reporting really neutral or an attempt to frame policy debate ahead of an upcoming election? (The Liberal party in Canada having a nasty tendency to promise certain policies prior to an election, in order to get elected, only to abandon those policies immediately after election).

And if that's not enough, Emanuel still presents the discredited hockey stick as factually accurate and his soft sell of consensus is smooth but does mask a lot of areas of legitimate dispute and discrepancy.

So, the tune is sweeter but not yet entirely free of ideology and marketing. And, sadly, the nuances of the message appear to be being buried deeper even within those comments that claim to be revealing them.

So better: but not yet good enough.

IPCC:Policy Neutral or Political Advocates?

The latest IPCC report on climate change is to be issued this Spring. Already it is generating controversy and concern. Fresh on the realization that the political Policy Summary will be issued first and the scientific Technical Reports will follow three months later (only after they have been edited for consistency with the policy summary: i.e. the politics will determine the science, the science will not determine the politics), the leadership of the IPCC has been making pronouncements that clearly characterize the overt political advocacy of the IPCC rather than its supposed policy neutrality.

It will be interesting to see if this fourth IPCC report further polarizes viewpoints on climate change or if indeed it can foster some kind of true understanding. Sadly, as long as the IPCC continues to treat science as a political football, real science will always be kicked to the sidelines by whatever political expediency is in ascendancy.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Censoring the skeptics

A particular conceit amongst intellectuals is that the world needs saving and it needs their ideas to do it: thus, they are justified in imposing their ideas on the rest of us "for our own good". This aspect of politics is seemingly endemic and is both illustrated and dissected in Heinlein's brilliant novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Apparently, the majority are very quick to propose rules to control what other people are doing, not seeing the impact on their own freedom in the process.

What prompts this musing is the recent furor in the blogosphere on the latest attempts to impose strictures on the views that "experts" can and can not say about climate change and still be regarded as experts. (This posting on prometheus offers both a summary and some discussion).

Calls to "educate people on climate change" are similar to authoritarian efforts in re-education consistent with state approved dogma: in this case, education is presumed to be synonymous with agreement with the theory of global warming: the idea that people could educate themselves and then disagree with this predominant theory doesn't exist for those who propose such draconian "education".

Factually, climate changes. Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) remains a theory precisely because we lack both the empirical data and the necessary mathematics for causal proof of just how the AGW theory works. Concordance with the AGW theory is thus a matter of belief: a belief that varies with ideology, pre-disposition and self-interest. It is not, and should not, be a function of mandated, state-imposed, dogma that masquerades as eduction.

Quotations From Milton Friedman

Following behind the discussion on vested interests, poverty and development in my previous post, it is timely to re-read the words of Milton Friedman on capitalism, freedom and economic change.

Arguably the greatest economist of the last century, Milton Friedman was an active contributor to Reason magazine. Doherty has collated a series of some Friedman's best insights from those contributions and they have been posted here.

Friedman's comments cover the gamut from liberty, to the role of capitalism in a free society and through to the main constraints facing the maintenance of a free and just society: one of which, Friedman identifies as intellectualism and the tendency of intellectuals to want to prescribe rules and restrictions that are "for the good of society".

These themes are discussed further in a contemporary setting on two websites that are new to me: QandO and the Liberty Papers. Both offer answers that bridge the work of Friedman with the political insights and philosophy of Jefferson et al. on how a civil society can retain its freedom but not fall victim to the vested interests so constraining Latin America.

The Power of Vested Interests

Here is an excellent discussion on economic development in Latin America. It is a good post that assesses the real status of poverty and non-development in contrast to that of the developed world. While productivity in Latin America is significantly lower than that in North America or Europe, employment rates and efficiency rates are not significant and do not explain the discrepancy in productivity. The problem is not that too few people are working but that they are not producing enough. The explanation is in the power exerted by Vested interests. Simply put, vested interests in the political, business and organized labor communities have been in a stronger position in Latin America than elsewhere to get the political and legal institutions to protect them. The result has been a concentration of wealth and a continuation of widespread poverty despite increased developments.

In this context it is clear that political reform will have to occur before economic reforms can do much to transform the daily drudge of the majority of the population: political freedom precedes economic freedom.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The truth about organic food

Organic food is no healthier than ‘conventional’ food produced by industrial methods: neither is it better for the environment. These are the two main points in a recent post by Lyons, who examines the facts about organic food in contrast with the claims made by its advocates.

In some instances the data are clear, in some other instances they are either absent or subject to very selective interpretation. Not that organic food is harmful. Just more expensive, certainly an optional lifestyle choice, but not scientifically nor environmentally superior to regular, agri-business, supermarket produce. If you live in a rural, agricultural area (as I do) and you want to support your neighbours and the local economy by buying local, that appears to make sense to me. But don't succumb to the marketing push for "green" produce and the myth that buying organic will somehow "safe" the environment, as it is simply not true.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Dangers of disinformation

Scientists ask questions, formulate hypotheses, design experiments, look at the evidence, modify the hypotheses and probe further. Then activists, news media and politics take over."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The paradox of prosperity

Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt: all arguably much more handsome than me (worse, there's not a lot of people even willing to make the argument). Living proof we are not all born equal. Yet, generations of intellectuals have persisted in perpetuating the myth that we should all aspire to being equal and that life, while patently not equal for all, should be. The fatal flaw is that what we really should be advocating is equity and not equality. Equity is where we are all treated the same irrespective of our looks, birth circumstances, race, gender or creed. Equity is where governance and authority is the same for all of us and, within that transparency, we are free to be as unequal as our unique gifts, talents, energy, ambition and industry permit.

A determining characteristic of stasis thought is the promotion of equality as the defining rationale for all authoritative acts of governance, justified on the grounds that they are seeking to balance society's limited resources for everyone. Thus, consumption is viewed with suspicion, and the innate belief that all consumption beyond one's own immediate means, is clearly over-consumption. The corollary here is that, in the words of Edmund Burke, 'all people want equality with those who have more than they do'.

Dynamists, however, focus on the level playing field provided by attention to issues of equity. Rather than looking at the results of any endeavor, dynamists look to ensure openness of opportunities, transparent rules and the provision of justice as mechanisms by which all can succeed, knowing most won't, but that all could.

What prompted my reflection on the two contrasting characteristics of equity and equality, was the latest essay by Daniel Ben-Ami over on the spiked website. His article tackles the flawed proposition, that while human well-being is measurably improved over the past 100 years, and that prosperity has clearly benefited all of society, there are those who claim that people, while more prosperous, are less happy. In accordance with this thought, affluence is not a "good" nor a "benefit" to society, as it leaves those that prosper unfulfilled.

What a wonderful, false, stasis rationalisation for under-achievement and regulated suppression of affluence (a.k.a. taxation). Don't be weathly, you'll just be miserable and look at the guilt you'll have to carry now that you're over-consuming.

Hogwash. Having been broke, I have determined three things about money:

1. it's better to have it than not
2. better more than less
3. better now than later

In the immortal words of the Beatles, "money can't buy you love". Money itself does not make you happy: but it does allow you relief from the most vexing of life's problems (including the basis necessities of food and shelter), thereby removing any external excuses for misery. Everything else is an internal task: some will and some won't.

Abraham Lincoln: People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.

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Ignorance or Apathy?

Is the biggest problem facing the environment ignorance or apathy? Don't know, don't care.

That's a joke I often use in talks to highlight the problem with dispelling ecomyths: you can't simply foist data on people and expect them to suddenly "think right". Education is a fantastic instrument, but simply saying "more education" is not the same as solving anything. It is how people receive their education and what they are being taught that is definitive: are we simply downloading facts or are we teaching people how to consider, reflect and use that information? Anything that can be googled does not need to be memorized. However, one does need a healthy sense of self-awareness to navigate the array of perspectives in the media, the blogosphere and within refereed journal articles.

A great post by Kling discusses the various strategies people adopt to avoid "truths", particularly those truths that contradict foundational constructs and beliefs: the very basis of ecomyths and their propagation. For the lay public, Kling suggest the ignorance is bliss strategy is common: what you don't know won't hurt you and most "issues" don't really affect day to day life anyways. In contrast, "informed" commentators tend to adopt more intensive strategies that usually result in entrenched opinions when their foundational constructs are challenged.

In short, lots of people are apathetic because they choose to remain ignorant. To be ignorant is to self-justify not becoming engaged in the discussion nor the implementation of change. Conversely, many elites become actively engaged in discussion as they see it to be the requirement of the masses to change in alignment with elite ideas. Consistent with this view, those elites are reluctant to change or modify ideas they see as "correct", irrespective of any data to the contrary. Much of contemporary environmentalism falls within these parameters.

Using Taber and Lodge's phrase, motivated skepticism is not overcome with the provision of new and/or contradictory data: change starts with an open mind, and open minds can not exist until foundational constructs are altered. Ideological perspectives that reflect a closed mind must first become ideological perspectives that reflect an open mind. To paraphrase Covey, don't tell people what to think: help them learn how to think for themselves. Funnily enough, this very non-elitist strategy is most often the one educational elites resist the most.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Politicised Science of Climate Change

Every so often a commentator offers an article that both precise in its language and accurate in its observations. Garth Paltridge offers such a précis on the politicised science of climate change here.

For those who wonder how and why seemingly intelligent people can remain skeptical of the dominant global warming ecomyth, Paltridge presents a succinct explanation. He suggests that the two scientific groups within the IPCC process exist primarily "to lend gravitas and respectability to the essentially political deliberations" arising from the deliberations of the third working group of the IPCC. Moreover, as the IPCC process has evolved, each of its

...successive summaries has been phrased in such a way as to appear a little more certain than the last that greenhouse warming is a potential disaster for mankind. The increasing verbal certainty does not derive from any advances in the science. Rather, it is a function of how strongly a statement about global warming can be put without inviting a significant backlash from the general scientific community. Over the years, the opinion of that community has been manipulated into more-or-less passive support by a deliberate campaign to isolate - and indeed to denigrate - the scientific sceptics outside the central activity of the IPCC. The audience has been actively conditioned into being receptive. It has thereby become gradually easier to sell the proposition of greenhouse disaster.
This conditioning process requires that the audience (politicians, media, lay public) believe that IPCC announcements are:
...the consensus opinion of the vast majority of knowledgeable climate scientists. The belief is simply not true - at least not in the sense that the public understands it....What worries most scientists who know a little about the subject is that virtually the entire experimental support for the theory of global warming is based on the rough coincidence of the slight rise in Earth's temperature over the last 100 years with the rise in concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the same period. The coincidence needs to be viewed in the light of the fact that the world's temperature has always gone up and down like a yo-yo on all sorts of time scales. Presumably it will continue to do so.

The IPCC doesn't really need to worry. The difficulty for the sceptics is that credible argument against accepted wisdom requires, as did the development of the accepted wisdom itself, large-scale resources which can only be supplied by the research institutions. Without those resources, the sceptic is only an amateur who can easily be kept in outer darkness.
And what prompted Paltridge to reflect on this process and write his article? The personalized, shrill and condescending reactions he received for his temerity in questioning the veracity of the IPCC process at a public conference. One sign that the emperor may indeed not have any clothes on, is the zeal with which those who feed from his trough choose to smite those who dare to ask defining questions. Science has nothing to fear from transparency and accountability: indeed they are essential to scientific progress. Politics, and especially the selective exercise of power, however, is always the most fearful of openness, clarity and dissent.

In my experience, the first thing zealots lose is their sense of humour. Second, is their sense of perspective. From then on in, they become steadily more enveloped in their own sense of paranoia, the primacy of "their" mission and the certitude of their own infallibility. Sadly, they become even more authoritarian than the "problems" they mobilized to reject. And if this description seems to harsh for many climate scientists, it paints an accurate picture of many who suborn the science into their political advocacy, the official websites of many environmental groups and a burgeoning number of blogs.