scraps from Darryl

 

Climate Change

Everything we know is based on authority even when doing Science. Those, for example, doing the fancy statistical analysis do not build the supercomputers nor personally verify all the data they use. Nothing wrong here and this methodology has served us well. If you have good reasons to trust others then fine, just pick your experts well. The argument from authority fails when the authority is the last resort not an intermediate short step.

Scientists are great believers “standing on the shoulders of giants”. They just don’t believe that there is something that can not be questioned.

Prof Tim Flannery is a palaeontologist. His doctoral thesis was on the evolution of macropods. If you want to know about the potential effects of climate change then this is the sort of person you would ask.

Science Journalism and the ensuring blogs like this are for information and education. Good things indeed but not directly doing Science. Reporting the consensus is paramount. Everything else is interesting detail, such as, the incompatibility between General Relativity and Quantum Theory; the lag between geological carbon dioxide levels and global temperature and the importance of skepticism when doing Science.

You will often find a counter-view reported in NewScientist articles, otherwise the article could leave the reader with the impression that the matter is settled. Good Science journalism.

The point about human induced climate change is the matter is settled. None of the fanciful issues purporting to show otherwise is any news to those doing climate science. The scientists are not convinced and that really is the end of the story.

It is not surprising that money for projects is difficult and it would be surprising if those doing the paper work do not put the best spin they can on their proposals. This applies to all research and development and no doubt skewers the sum total of human knowledge but also note that this is not anything like fraud. The ensuring results are still believable unless fraud really is found.

The claims against climate scientists are frankly unbelievable. Not even politicians and used-car salesmen are that systematically corrupt and dishonest.

Economics

The most important ‘Economic’ question today is the misuse of the term by current politicians, bureaucrats and economic commentators. Conservative economics, for example, in the tradition of Milton Friedman, is a legitimate economic position but ideas from this tradition have just become clichés. A good reference for this is Lindy Edwards, “How to Argue with an Economist”. Conservative economists would still accept that the subject of economics is more than one liners like ‘keeping interest rates low’ (or earlier ‘fighting inflation’).

Conservative Economics

Conservative economists may not go so far as saying Government spending is necessarily bad. But it is like social conservatives saying industrial action is a human right but, coincidentally, no strike so far has been justified.

There are technical reasons for this view based on modelling ‘demand and supply’ curves. (I have not found any use of this technique at all convincing).

Some defense of conservative economics includes:

Any economy is so complex that it is not possible to use top-down management.

Government action will more likely make matters worse whenever governments attempt to fix any real or perceived problem.

‘Crowding out’ which recognizes that there is a limited amount of funds available for lending and, if used by Government, then funds are not available (read cheep) for private investment.

The first is valid suggesting an economy has to be at least some mixture of public and private. Personally, I believe these are just management problems and laisai faire is no management at all.

A couple of one liners from me

Economics is about managing resources. Sounds like a greenie to me.

One aspect about managing is making a bigger pie but it is also about reducing losses. More importantly managing is also about distribution of resources. A good way to measure distribution is the Gini coefficient calculated from a Lorenz curve.

If the distribution of resources is fair, or even just totally random, then the income distribution will follow a normal bell curve. This doesn’t happen. Certainly in Australia, transfer payments have distorted the income distribution for those at the bottom but also in Australia, those in the high income range are earning significantly more than a pure random distribution would suggest.

It is valid to ask of any politician, bureaucrat or economic commentator about the environment. There is no either/or option between economics or the environment. It is also valid to ask about the income divide. Failure on these areas is a failure on economics. Hawke and Keating did attempt, under the Accord, to address income distribution so it is not correct to claim there was no difference between them and Howard.

It is, of course, absolutely ludicrous to compare Howard with Menzies. The only similarity is in the cynical response that deep down they were both intent on robbing from the poor to give to the rich.

America gave the world ‘intelligent design’ — Australia: ‘rational economics’.

Academic issues

The obvious problem with Economics is the weak way modelling is used. There appears to be no solid mathematics behind the models so the models are little more than stick figures. This comes out in many ways. Economists seem reluctant to check their theories against real economies. No mechanical engineer would ignore friction and this is not because they have failed to understand Newton. Economists act as though the label ‘externality’ excuses them of any further thought.

In my perverse manner I would like to ask ‘Economists’ if the Demand and Supply curve is a function or a relationship. My fear is that economists will not know that this is a silly question. To be serious for a moment a Demand and Supply curve is a thought experiment. Nothing wrong with that — witness Schrödinger’s cat for good Science and just about any days work in Philosophy. My point is that Economic models are not mathematical models although little bits of mathematics creep in here and there.

If Economics is to be a social science, then economists have to test their theories just as palaeontologist test ‘evolution’ against the fossil record. Where are the case studies showing examples where small government produced better economic outcomes, where addressing known market failures caused worse economic outcomes?

Another issue with economic models is the inclusion of one party, the Government. A government does have a unique role in an economy but this approach distorts the results.

Conservative economists love to talk about Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’. The gist of this is that without interference, (ie Government), the economy will always find an equilibrium. This is not just a general observation but the primary response to any economic crises; for example, depression, stagflation or GFC. Markets are a social phenomenon and so society must be involved with this interplay. The regulation is often inefficient but cannot become non-existent because then there will be no markets. Economic problems are real and should not be dismissed with trite formulae about de-regulation or just lowering taxes.

Feedback mechanisms work well in machines, ecosystems and markets but they will not protect the system from all shocks, ether external or internal. An individual machine or organism or whole industry, species or rock pool all eventually will fail from internal wear and tear or from an external factor such as exhaustion of a critical resource, climate extreme or technical innovation. In the jargon these are known as tipping points. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ will not protect markets from tipping points so we will get recessions, depressions, stagflation and global financial crises as long as we rely only on markets’ internal feedback mechanisms. A casual observer will note that a primary source of tension will be poor accounting. The slogan in project management is “What you measure gets optimised”. Not pricing environmental costs is one current battleground.

There are many other technical issues, for example, modelling short vs long term and accounting for all economic benefits not just those currently measured.

Business

Understanding business is not ‘economics’.

Companies have been granted legal status like individuals but they are not legally allowed to behave like individuals. They are only permitted to make short-term profits. To make these profits they have to act unfairly against people and their own long-term interest and to manage their resources recklessly.

In our society, businesses exercise extraordinary power, especially the few very large multi-nationals. The local plumber, on the other hand, is just a much a pawn as wage earners and pensioners. Business strength (multinationals) is not constrained by national borders. One consequence is the distortion of world trade in their favour against emerging businesses or other social considerations such as health and safety. The way world trade is currently structured is not democratic and it is also not even good economics.

Postscript

Personally I believe the above comments are virtually worthless as I am really railing against the simplistic presentation of Economics from newspapers, bankers, public servants and politicians. In other words I doing the classic burning of a straw-man. To get a better idea about economics and where economics really can help, look at institutions such as The Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Ethics

What is ‘good’? Is it God, man or yellow? Not only have I done little on this, I don’t have a single interesting suggestion to make. Ethics is also about moral arguments or how we talk about what is right and wrong. Even less experience here but I will have a go at the ‘moral’ principle that ‘We do not have the right to be wrong’. This is just an over-blown exhortation for honesty. One further aside. The ‘wrong’ here can be about a factual issue, acceptance of a theory or world view, or ethical position.

It is not possible to personally check everything we know: Examine, in exquisite detail, everything we believe: Dwell on everything we do. We survive on authority and skim issues that gel with our current beliefs. Not to do so is not a valid response. A climate scientist may argue ad nauseum about climate change and no doubt does so every day. The rest of us have to shut up and listen. It is not ‘science’ to invoke the importance of skepticism for Science and use it as an excuse to doubt a legitimate authority. If you want to become a climate change skeptic you first have to become a climate scientist.

Contrast this brouhaha with others, such as, the use of animals in medical research, scientific whaling, and genetically modified food. Here the argument is not against the science per se. If the climate scientists are right it is irrelevant if they are also greedy for grants. The argument against GM foods is that GM foods will not solve world hunger, environmental damage or acne and so the motivation and trade practices of Monsanto is relevant. The science itself is fine and it would appear to be a very good bet that genetic modification will become very valuable for us, for example, in medicine.

The principle here is more important when we use authority or something else to justify our beliefs and behaviour. This is evident in established religions. A belief is wrong when nothing will count against the belief. The ‘war on drugs’ is also a prime example. No facts on drugs will ever count against the ‘message’ we are supposed to be sending. We are left with a meaningless ‘hard on drugs’ policy. Something like Viagra, perhaps? On the other end of the social or cultural scale, our fondness for astrology and its ilk is justified in the name of harmless fun. I am not amused.

There is no reason to believe that ethical arguments will be easy. If you are religious then your ethics will be informed by your religion. Our politics should also be informed by our ethics but in the interest of tolerance, an ethical position, we may have to accept social norms and laws that are we find objectionable. Two good examples. In Australia there is a current argument about gay marriage. Marriage should not be gay. (Sorry about the poor joke.) Those supporting discrimination, a morally bad position, are doing so based on their religiously inspired ethics. In countries like ours, we appear to be happy to accept Christian laws and customs (or Jewish laws and customs in Israel) but rail against those supporting sharia law in predominately Muslim countries.

I cannot be quite so flippant about other social or cultural constraints. This includes social rules from our own historical baggage, for example, in my case, a Western Christian background. It also includes participation in social groups. Is your football term really going to win all the time? In the last example, this is a game and we cannot play without accepting an artificial fictional story. This is a game not a lie. I doubt if any red-neck would accept that patriotism is only a game.

Is there something other than tolerance working here? Aboriginal respect for the land or the Good Samaritan parable are both commendable irrespective of the existence of rainbow serpent or the resurrection. To cast our respect for all cultures as nothing more than being tolerant and accepting the truth in parables does seem a step too far but I have no other suggestions.

Always tell yourself this — “You have the right to be wrong but I don’t.”

Politics

Good Riddance

It may have been a comfort that so many Australians refused to support our own little terrorist but, even as he left, so many Australians still wanted his nasty views.

Sovereignty

What’s with this divine right of states? That was supposed to have died centuries ago. Now it is proffered that there is a difference between, on the one hand, individuals or social groups, and ‘sovereign’ states. We have even kept the word. Israel has a right to defend itself but not Palestinians. One is a state and the other only a group of people. Even to deny that Israel should exist is somehow anathema. Correcting the balance by creating (recognizing) two states doesn’t solve the question.

Nobody has the right to be wrong and neither does any group nor state have this right. Get over it and stop killing people.

Nuclear Power

Don’t you just love it that the nuclear lobby has found conservation? And then they lecture greenies about being driven by ideology.

I would love to know which bit they consider ideology. Here is some. Nuclear power is a major polluter; nuclear power is awfully expensive; nuclear power has significant development lead times; nuclear arsenals still hide behind peaceful installations; nuclear power can only be implemented by big business - community co-ops need not apply. And did anyone mention Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Windscale?

Just for the record. Nuclear power by itself does not provide base line power. Nuclear installations have to be down for regular and emergency maintenance. This point is not just about nuclear plants. Nothing runs all the time. The problem with the popular use of the term base line power is that it is not a generation problem but a management and distribution problem. Hence the value of multiple sources and large-scale grids. (Update: this should be ‘well managed grids’ as micro-grids need to be considered.)

Sending a Message

In the highly, complex structured language of ‘diplomacy’ every word spoken and not spoken “sends a message”. In every other instance that I can think of “sending a message” is disingenuous as the audience is never the people involved. Rather the audience is the politician’s own constituency. No politician seems to have the intestinal fortitude to risk alienating voters by, for example, having a sensible policy on recreational drugs. We must send a message to the ‘kiddies’ who, if they did hear the crap, would easily recognise the rampant hypocrisy on display.

Poverty

Poverty has been accepted as a denial of human rights. See for example Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is now a major focus for Amnesty International. In view of the number of people harmed it is easily the greatest violation of human rights. Is anyone to blame? Three common answers are: themselves, us and nobody.

The first is easy. Did you work harder today (had whiter skin?) then all of the thousands who died today from poverty-related causes?

Just bad luck is a little more deceptive answer. To respond to this properly requires an understanding of our global economic history. I cannot do this here but personally consider this answer highly unlikely. Wealth distribution does not appear to be random as expected if chance was the primary factor. Consider three bits of information here.

Iraq recovered after the first Gulf war without our help in about ten months. Aren’t they lucky now that we are helping!

For a country to be really poor they need to have some resource that others (us) want. Internal corruption and civil war is the usual result and war is a greater cause of poverty than drought. The Congo - tantalum, and Sudan - oil, are good examples. (Another form of corruption is tied grants where foreign aid is merely a stimulus package for our own companies.)

Indian hemp was a significant resource for subsistence farmers: providing fuel, shelter and clothing for little expense in land or labour. American cotton farmers invented the term ‘marijuana’ and promoted the world-wide ‘war on drugs’ (but not on the poverty this policy causes).

We could add that, irrespective of cause, we still have a responsibility to act against any denial of human rights. Arguments like this seem to move no one.

Which leaves us to blame for a violation of human rights more extreme than any rogue state or terrorists. As the twin towers were falling as many children were dying of starvation. The big difference is that this was true before the attack and is still happening.

Can we do anything without jeopardising our comfortable lifestyle? Probably not although the same was said about slavery and now climate change. Is this a real political problem? We have been sold in the past to ‘fight inflation first’ at the expense of jobs and now are being sold on ‘normal’ interest rates. The current world-wide expenditure on all things military is perhaps the best example of wasted resources to prop up selected groups. Vested interests certainly have a way of arguing when pain is good for the rest of us.

Get over it and stop killing people.

Religion

Philosophy

This bit is called “Religion” because I tend to reserve the word “philosophy” for the boring dry stuff done at University, which, of course, I prefer (see for example Philosophy). I should have used this word as the correct English is more general than this anal construct for “philosophy”.

God

I grew up with what is termed a Judeo-Christian notion of ‘God’. This is the all-everything version. I don’t care for any sort of watered-down animism or pantheism as this is just rather quaint poetry. When I say “God does not exist” I mean that, when you add up all the things in the world, a theist thinks there is one more thing. (This, of course, was all pinched from a University lecture.)

What I think of things is not relevant here but to give a flavour to this I am happy with saying that my pets and my relationship to my pets are both real but only my pets and I exist. But, of course, nothing is that simple.

World view, science and ethics

A common misconception is that theists have a world view and that atheists do not or even cannot. The same with morality. Sometimes Science (or Evolution) is said to be the atheist’s replacement world view. A lot of garbage here.

On the other hand Humanism is a more substantive notion for a replacement Ethics.

First of all, the claim that God does not exist because we now know better is a rather lame reverse of Newton’sGod in the gaps’ theory. Garbage from my side of the fence.

A ‘world view’ refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual interprets the world and interacts in it. When you step backwards you do not usually check to see if there is something to stand on. This is a part of your world view. It would be fair to say that everything we know is just part of our world view because so very little of what we know has been rigorously tested personally by us. This includes all the things in the world and all the relationships between these things. Much of scientific knowledge is believed, even by scientists, as just part of our beliefs or world view. There is nothing wrong with this sort of faith, indeed, we cannot live without it.

A similar point is made by the mind sciences, in that, we can do little using both direct perception and full conscious analysis. Note, however, that this notion is not the same.

How do you know that the world is not flat or that the Earth goes around the Sun?

We all live with clichés.

Even listing things we believe exist is dictated by our world view. (Now this is into my pet area. Notice the difference between the sentence, “Unicorns are mythical creatures with one horn.” and the sentence “Unicorns have one horn and do not exist.”.)

There will always be conflicts between your world view, Science and just about everything else. What matters is what wins. If your world view always wins, then you have Faith and are just plain wrong. Faith like this cannot be reconciled with truth. If you are just sceptical and are demanding more evidence to support any findings adverse to your world view than that’s okay (up to a point but that’s for a discussion for the Philosophy of Science).

This is acknowledged a little for example by some Christians when they accede that if some critical events could be shown (by Science or History) not to have occurred then they could no longer remain Christian.

The Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in Physics and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem in Maths should make anyone wary of grandiose claims to any absolute truth. This may cut both ways, that is, against atheism. Perhaps it should not be surprising that, after much searching, no one has shown that God exists. The all-everything notion of God is just the sort of concept that would run into the sort of logical problems raised by Gödel. (There are other problems of this ilk, for example, Russell and Whitehead’s proof that a simple set theory leads to a contradiction.)

For what it is worth, here is my proof that God does not exist. It is mine because I believe it to be sound: Not that I worked this out all by myself. I call the proof “Turtles in Tasmania”.

Science

One day I will check this out by asking someone who understands this stuff.

My current synopsis about the current theory of particle physics is based on the theory of Emmy Noether noting the connection between symmetry and conservation laws. My take is that in a random universe some probabilities are higher than others because mathematical symmetries ensure these bits are longer lasting, ie, particles. No idea about the history of this so I don't know if this is correct. For example, the Standard Model is usually described as arising from the four fundamental forces of nature (well three anyway) but all the mathematics seems to use the work of Emmy Noether.

This take on particle physics appeals to my metaphysics. Everything is random but we make sense of, identify, longer lasting phenomena because that is how our minds work not because these things have intrinsic reality like a Platonic Form or something designed.

Social

When social conservatives talk about ‘family values’ they appear to imply that others do not believe in the importance of this particular social grouping. The ‘others’ remain bemused and bewildered as nothing more is being claimed beyond simple mother-hood statements. What is really being proffered is that the ‘family’ is the ONLY social grouping of any value whereas the ‘others’ accept the importance of all community structures.

The political dimension of ‘family values’ is that conservatives have aligned themselves with free-marketers and the emphasis on the individual. While this tradition has bequeathed to us the valuable notion of ‘human rights’, it has left a hole in our understanding of humans as fundamentally social creatures. The exhortation for ‘family values’ is an attempt to fill this void.

The ‘family’ has been exploited at other times, for example, to defend a lower social status for women. Women do not need to have their own status as they automatically have this as a part of a family. It is no accident that conservatives only accept heterosexual ‘families’.

Socially progressive people accept that all community groups are important to humans; stamp clubs, religions, sport et alia. All should be supported. Even atheists and agnostics need neighbourhoods with churches, mosques and synagogues because they have neighbours who want to go there.

Economics

There is an ‘economic’ dimension to all social issues but this is not the whole story. We should neither ignore management issues when implementing policy nor implement policies only on management issues.

Markets are a social construct. Free-marketers with their emphasis on the individual miss the point. The easiest way to get money out of a bank is with a shot-gun. Total deregulation means no interaction and, hence, no market. The slogan should be ‘efficiency’. One aspect of this is that what is efficient will change over time, for example, with new technology, so policy development is an ongoing proposition. The size and complexity of Government activity in any market is neither an indication of efficiency nor inefficiency.