Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Buying Beach Front for Bird's Eye View of the Flood

Perhaps the next most pointless intellectual endeavor after writing a blog is getting into a Facebook debate.  Facebook is great for those smarmy little political cartoons that, in the spirit of tolerance, try to smear in some way anyone with the opposite political view.  A friend recently posted a cartoon with the teacher from the Simpson’s, lit cigarette in hand, and this caption:
Bad Teaching 101: A New Bill in Kansas Would Require State School Teachers to Question The Existence of Climate Change
My friend added the following remark: “Really?! You may debate cause. You may not debate the evidence.”  A mutual friend then made two successive comments: “unbelievable …” followed by “I take that back … too easily believed …”
I seemed to have adopted the anti-Andrew Carnegie approach to Facebook, which is to lose friends and influence no one, so I made the following comment regarding the believability:
“You are right, it is too easily believed, but not because it's true; it's too easily believed because of a little cognitive shortcoming called confirmation bias - you want to believe it is true about us knuckle draggers, so you accept it at face value. But a five second google search shows that the language of the statute is "climate science," not "climate change", even though the blog I found the wording on also made the swap of "change" for "science," probably due to the same cognitive shortcoming. It's a distinction that is a big difference. It allows, for instance, about debates over cause. All that said, there is nothing simple about climate science - if it is taught at all, it should be part of an AP course, and honestly very few people with a bachelor's degree teaching high school science are capable of understanding the nuance of it. For that reason, it is more likely that what you would be taught is what the teacher wants to believe.”  
Which beckoned the counter:
“…let's be honest the debate is not over whether or not our climate is at some sort of tipping point but rather over whether or not man is contributing to the causes or speed of the change and therefore whether human action can be legislated. This Kansas legislation is very political in nature, and I do see this sort of legislation as spearheaded by knuckle-draggers... these are not people looking to debate the cause/speed of climate change but rather are deniers.... and denial is simply not upheld by hard science. Politics aside, I know you are a scientist, led by models and proof, so am surprised if you feel climate science is controversial... but I do NOT see all Republicans as knuckle-draggers...
My reply:
“I have to be honest with you, I would support this legislation 100 percent as a second best option to not touching the subject at all in grade school or high school. It is in no way shape or form a "fundamental" science, in the sense that I want my kids learning biology, chemistry, and physics. It is a sub-specialty of a sub-specialty of a sub-specialty, and therefore its presence in the curriculum itself is very political in nature. If you want to argue that it is worth teaching because of its policy relevance, then you: 1) prove my point; and 2) should instead consider a curriculum that teaches some fundamental economics, which has far more policy relevance. And actually the debate is over both whether we're at a tipping point and whether humanity has contributed to the situation or not.
This put in mind of a correspondence I had with the author of Big Questions, Steven Landesburg.  In that book, the author makes the argument that no one really believes in God, because given the known deterrent effects of punishment, and the prospect of eternal damnation, we would essentially see far less sinning.  I asked him at the time if he ever thought about the same argument relative to catastrophic global warming, adding that very few professed believers personally cuts back their "footprint" dramatically enough on an individual basis to lead to an aggregate result that would do anything even if all believers and non-believers followed suit. I acknowledged, however, that this could be a free-rider problem, with the share of non-believers being too big for any efforts of the believers to matter, and so the believers go ahead and spew out as much CO2 as the rest of us.
His reply was interesting: “It seems to me that an even better indicator is this: How many of the professed believers are buying up land in areas where land will become more valuable if their predictions are true? (E.g. cold climates, inland cities, etc.)”  He is absolutely correct that this is a better indicator, because unlike my indicator, it doesn’t suffer from the free rider problem of the deniers doing nothing to counter global warming.  In fact, it relies upon the deniers doing nothing for speculative purposes.  The logic is this – right now there are all these deniers out there who don’t realize that Manhattan will be flooded, and that Minneapolis will soon become a tolerable climate, so I can sell what is now over-priced land in Manhattan to buy land on the cheap in Minneapolis.  Once the reality hits, and the deniers are under water in Times Square, this speculative investment pays off big time.  Why did all of this come to mind?  Because the person who is worked up about the knuckle dragging deniers just bought beach front property.
I really don’t want to debate global warming, which is as you may have noticed a very passé term, replaced by climate change, which clearly allows for ups and downs – the change in term is probably an indication of retreat from a rigid position that I am guessing no longer enjoys true support.  It is a fashionable smear on Republicans to say now that they are anti-science.  But there is merit in being skeptical about the claims of a fairly new science; history is replete with examples of false scientific theories that enjoyed the consensus of the brightest scientific minds of the time – whether we are discussing spontaneous generation, the earth-centered universe, the list can go on and on. 
There is no point in history where scientists suddenly as a group become immune to mistaken adherence to incorrect theories.  What we do know is this – 1) the predictions of the models that formed the basis of the global warming alarmists have been way way off; 2) the scientists who have been at the head of the global warming alarmism have been caught with significant egg on their faces – withholding data and black-balling legitimate scientists that are skeptical; 3) global warming alarmism has been a career-maker for many scientists – absent the purported policy implications of their theories, government funding for their work would be a fraction of what it has been over the last 2 decades; and 4) for every industry that has a vested interest in denying global warming that seeks to fund scientists to reach a foregone conclusion, there is an equal and opposite industry that has a vested interest in inflating the occurrence or damage of global warming which also seeks to hire scientists to reach a foregone conclusion (witness the parade of green energy companies getting government subsidies).  For someone who may not be competent to judge the merit of the different positions in the debate or the ability to pick which experts are trustworthy, or who otherwise does not have the time to educate himself to make their own informed decision, these four facts do not lend themselves to blind adherence to global warming alarmism.  The second point especially seems almost damning to the global warming crowd, and it gives the lie to the idealized version of science being an open and disinterested search for truth.  It seems the knuckle draggers are not alone in trying to avoid debating the cause/speed of climate change.
Professional scientists are very smart people, but they are not immune to ethical problems or to severe confirmation bias in their work.  In the long run, the scientific process usually corrects the errors of past theories, but in the short run claims to certainty are almost certainly overblown.  And, in fact, the tide is beginning to turn on the false “consensus” about catastrophic global warming: only 36 percent of geoscientists and engineers believe that humans are creating a warming crisis; the remainder either believe nature is the primary cause or that future warming will not be a big problem (  Not buying it?  Sell your Manhattan real estate for something in Minneapolis and laugh at us knuckle draggers all the way to the bank!


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