Archive for September 2011

Do Not Get Out Of The Boat

September 28, 2011

Daily Kos has recently posted what may be the most eyeball-melting, brain corroding wingnut rap ever.  I’m not going to embed it here.  It’s that bad.  Don’t go watch it if you value any illusions you may yet possess about the possibility of the advance of civilization.  Any action you take from here — on you, my brothers and sisters.

The barbarians over at the GOS even had the sadist’s delight in getting this up at 6 p.m. Eastern time — dinner, or, for me and my family, the start of the new year observances that focus on the contemplation of the twelve months just past.

Talk about harshing one’s mellow.  Seriously, that’s a vid that could curdle any supply of milk within parsecs.

All of which leads to the question:  what is it about wingnuttery that yields such dire, humorless, dispiriting simulacrums of art.  Hell — not even art, but entertainment?  Even the merest of pleasures?

We did not deserve this.

Image:  Adriaen Pietersz van de Venne,  Altogether Too Stupid, (a peasant woman gets her wits sharpened on the knife-grinder’s whetstone as other are drawn in by the miracle cure), before 1662.  I know I’ve used this one before — but damn, it’s on point.

“I knew I was going to take the wrong train….”

September 27, 2011

…”so I left early.”

Thus sayeth that noted neutrino expert Yogi Berra, Bb.D.

Because humankind cannot live by politics alone, here’s a bit of an off-angle reaction to the biggest news in physics since Big Al (as I thought of him through a decade of film-and-book making/writing on the good Dr. Einstein) looked out of his window and wondered what would happen if the roofer he was watching slipped and fell.  Before the poor fellow hit the pavement, of course.

That would be the announcement last Friday that an Italian team of physicists sent a beam of neutrinos from the CERN high energy physics facilty on the Franco-Swiss border through the Alps to a detector in the Italian national physics lab in Gran Sasso, a journey of almost 460 miles (~730 km).  The newsworthy bit was that the experimenters measured the speed with which some 16,000 or so neutrinos covered that distance, and found that it very slightly exceeded the speed of light, “c”  — the canonical limit within Einstein’s special theory of relativity that nothing may exceed.*

The effect detected by the experiment, known as OPERA, was small:  1 part in about 40,000 greater than c.  But any breaking of the light barrier is a huge deal.  If the result stands up, we’re in for a fun ride.  There will be lots of new physics to be found.  Good initial reactions can be found all over the physics blogosphere — try this, or this to get started.

For my part, as someone who’s been observing physics from the outside since I first grew fascinated with Einstein’s work in the late 1980s, I’m reminded a bit of the last decade of the nineteenth century.  In 1894 the (to-be) Nobel laureate A. A. Michelson famously told an audience at the University of Chicago that

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.

Timing is everything:  in  1895, just one year after Michelson gave his speech Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays, and it was off to the races into the 20th century revolutions in physics.

Recently, folks may have been forgiven for feeling at least a little bit of what Michelson did, as by the 1990s, every major relevant experiment over the previous couple of decades had confirmed the details of the Standard Model of particle physics.

That theory is not complete.   It does not encompass General Relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, for example, and it has a just the whiff of an ad hoc quality to it.  It has troubled a fair number of observers that the Standard Model comes with a number of dials (parameters) that have to be set by hand, as it were, to make all the sums come out right.

For all that, the theory proved for decades to be astonishingly powerful:  those twenty or so parameters have paid for themselves with hundreds — thousands, really — successful predictions.  But the frustrating bit has been that for many, many years, very clever people have tried and failed  to find something that the Model got wrong that would lead to a more comprehensive picture of reality.  Physics, if not confined to what Michelson quoted a colleague as saying — measurements of the sixth decimal place — seemed to some to be grasping for something to liven up the joint again.†

And then, of course, we got dark matter.  Dark matter has been hanging around for a while — roughly forty years, ever since Vera Rubin first measured motions in distant galaxies that implied the presence of much more mass than could be accounted for by the available luminescent matter –  stars.  We’re still waiting for a definitive understanding of what all that mass is made of.

More recently, dark energy (or a non-zero cosmological constant, if you prefer) appeared on the scene — a yet more challenging observation. Dark energy was first detected by a pair of teams measuring the light from a particular type of supernova. Reporting in 1998 and 1999, they confirmed that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace — and putting that information into the framework of Big Bang cosmology generated an astonishing number:  about three quarters of the stuff in the universe — the sum of mass and energy present within the cosmos– comes i the form of whatever this dark energy turns out to be.

 

In other words:  we live in interesting times.  And thankfully, some such circumstances — those outside of politics — are actually interesting as in fun, rather than applying the usual torque that line evokes.

There are huge, significant new problems out there, with at least some real prospect of observational discoveries that could lead to major shifts in our understanding of the cosmos we call home.  This neutrino result would lead to another such shift — if it holds up — and it would thus stand both as an example of virtuoso measurement and as a great big sloppy kiss of an invitation to theorists who will have to rethink special relativity — for a century one of the fundamental principals of existence, a fact of life in the universe so fundamental that any physical result had to conform to it or fail.

To be sure, there’s a good way to go yet before we plunk the leaders of the OPERA team into sedan chairs and bear them off in triumph to Stockholm.  As of four or five days into the era of superluminal neutrinos, no one has found an obvious killing flaw in the work, but it’s a complicated experiment, and confirmation would be so consequential that every physicist I’ve talked to or read has cautioned me not to bet the rent money on it.

(Thanks xkcd)

But even as we wait — probably not too long, as these things go — for another experimental team to reproduce or demolish this initial finding, we can enjoy the one certain decay product of a collision between theoretical physics and the Twitterverse.

That would be neutrino jokes (perhaps an acquired taste).  Hence these, gathered by the L.A. Times.  (h/t @JenLucPiquant).

My favorite (also plumped by regular commenter SiubhanDuinne in a previous thread):

We don’t allow faster than light neutrinos in here, said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

Yeah.  An acquired taste.

*There is a history of theoretical musings about faster-than-light particles that predates this experiment, but such particles, dubbed tachyons, are understood never to slow to the speed of light.  In this conception, the speed of light is a limit that can be approached from either side — below or above — but never crossed.  So, for those of us in the slow lane, the  cartoon description of the speed of light as a speed limit has been close enough to right to do the job.  We do live in interesting times.

†The “sixth decimal point” statement has earned Michelson a lot of ridicule over the years.  Certainly, it was bad luck indeed to provide such a quotable quote just one year before the gaudy show-stopper of X-rays.  But on reading this paper (pdf) on Michelson’s thinking about measurement, I’m reminded he’s at least partly the victim of a bad rap.  In his 1894 speech he expressly pointed out that two problems pressing on physicists at the time were the “constitution of matter and the ether and the true mechanism of light” — in other words, the questions that lead directly to both relativity and the quantum theory.  (Thanks to Ed Bertschinger for discussing this point with me; he is not to blame for any use I made of his knowledge.)

And though Michelson was clearly wrong in the import of his statement — the “nothing left but the details” suggestion — still, as a master of meticulous experimental technique, he can be credited with a deep, and clearly correct idea:  high precision measurement was and remains the probe through which new phenomena could be discovered.  The neutrino experiment that has prompted all this hullabaloo may indeed be the latest example of the power of experimental acuity to evoke genuinely new insights.

Image:  Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night over the Rhone, 1888.  (Predictable, I know — but a variation on the usual, and a gorgeous painting).

Facts Matter (Education Division)

September 27, 2011

Kay over at Balloon Juice recently posted on Republican whining that our president thinks governing is actually something worth doing.  I agree both with her disdain for the president’s (and, in my view) our polity’s opponents, and her argument that in fact it is important to try to solve problems before they become crises.

That’s especially true in the case of No Child Left Behind, which threatens real disruption when the day of reckoning comes (soon, in 2014) — with the heaviest impact falling, of course, on those least able to bear it.

But it is important to remember as well that Obama is no knight sans peur and sans reproche in the school reform fight.

I’m no kind of expert here, but what has consistently driven me crazy every time I’ve dipped a toe into the literature on education reform is the near-total absence of any actual reason to believe anything so called reformers say.

So without further ado, I’ll turn the critique over to Diane Ravitch,  a stalwart in chronicling and condemning the Overlords’ attempt to remake American education to some abstract vision.  In her latest, a damning review of Stephen Brill’s panagyric to the grand alliance of Wall St. viceroys and Silicon Valley technophiles, she offers this summary of the Obama administration’s approach to the reform of reform:

The Obama administration has offered to grant waivers from the onerous sanctions of NCLB, but only to states willing to adopt its preferred remedies: privately managed charter schools, evaluations of teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores, acceptance of a recently developed set of national standards in reading and mathematics, and agreement to fire the staff and close the schools that have persistently low scores. None of the Obama administration’s favored reforms—remarkably similar to those of the Bush administration—is supported by experience or evidence.

Most research studies agree that charter schools are, on average, no more successful than regular public schools; that evaluating teachers on the basis of their students’ test scores is fraught with inaccuracy and promotes narrowing of the curriculum to only the subjects tested, encouraging some districts to drop the arts or other nontested subjects; and that the strategy of closing schools disrupts communities without necessarily producing better schools. In addition, the “Common Core State Standards” in reading and mathematics that states must adopt if they hope to receive a waiver from the US Department of Education have never been subjected to field-testing.

I am pretty close to an O-bot, I guess, and I do think that we have in President Obama one of the most sneakily effective drivers of real policy change to be seen around these parts for a long time.  And again, I’m nothing like an education reporter.

But my background as a science writer makes me very suspicious.  The Obama waiver seems better than the alternative of the NCLB guillotine — Obama at his worst is a meliorist, a believer in the possibility of progress through human endeavor.  But the weakness of the empirical justification for what is on offer sticks in my craw…and it reminds me that even with the best of our friends, being on the right side of the angels most of the time still means that some moments are spent on the far side of that line.  Which bears noticing, and an attempt to repair.

Oh — and this all gives me a very sketchy excuse to post a wonderful video turned up by my Swiss science writing colleague Reto Schneider.  The video documents what purports to be a lecture on “Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education.”  It is…well see for yourself, and think Sokal before Sokal:

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See how great all that science-y stuff is for education and all?

For the details on the hoax (and the astonishing fact that even after being told the whole thing was a fake, some members in the audience persisted in seriously-intended questions!), check out what Reto has to say at the link above.

Image:  Antonio de Pereda, The Knight’s Dream, 1655

Eine Kleine Sunday Light Reading

September 25, 2011

I’ve been uncharacteristically quiet the last several days, I know.  That’s what happens when a lot of years thinking about Albert Einstein brings one an invitation to the city of Medellin, Colombia to talk Big Al to the public.

Medellin is a fascinating place, as it happens, though I didn’t get that much time to explore.  I was struck throughout my visit at the oddness of the mix of circumstances that brought me to a place I’d truly never imagined I’d go, to speak of relativity, Hitler, and all kinds of things.  Funny old life and all that.

It’s not that complicated to get to Medellin from Boston — a hop to Miami and then a direct flight from there — but the plane rides and the layovers added up to the longest stretch of uninterrupted pure reading time I’ve had in a while.  On the way down, I finished Tom Bissell’s really interesting Extra Lives: Why Videogames Matter — I may write about this non-gamer’s reaction to Bissell’s attempt to locate the game-specific artistic core of the genre — but what has me captivated from a couple of days ago is my re-entry into Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet.

That book, a memoir written from deep within the consuming fact of Judt’s last illness — ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease — is really a collection of short essay/memories.  Judt was a historian — his work centers on post-war Europe — and a public intellectual, the author of essays that detailed the flaws and follies of politics and culture on both sides of the Atlantic with bite — even ferocity.  The Memory Chalet touches on such concerns only obliquely.  But even so, in the midst of this exercise of recollection, flashes of connection arc across time and wit to produce sudden, wonderful set pieces.

Like the one prompted by a remembrance of Britain’s end-of and post-war Prime Minister Clement Atlee — so precisely rendered as to strike switchblade slash of political observation that makes me wish (again) that this particular wit were still unsheathed:

Moral seriousness in public life is like pornography:  hard to define but you know it when you see it.  It describes a coherence of intention and action, an ethic of political responsibilty.  All politics is the art of the possible.  But art too has its ethic.  If politicians were painters, with FDR as Titian and Churchill as Rubens, then Atlee would be the Vermeer of the profession:  precise, restrained — and long undervalued.

 

Bill Clinton might aspire to the heights of Salvador Dali (and believe himself complimented by the comparison), Tony Blair to the standing — and cupidity — of Damien Hurst.

Blair as Hurst.  Perfect.

See what I mean, though?  Would that Judt were around to wrap mind and apply pen to the freak show of contemporary Republican politics!

One more thing.  Given that it’s Sunday, and we should not live by politics alone, here’s a bonus bit of Judt, pure memory here, in a brief passage that tries to capture an identity formed through a childhood transected by warring cuisines:  the postwar English assaults against food; his grandparents’ resistant strain of Eastern European Jewish Sabbath meals; the first hints of a world of food beyond Land’s End.  What did all this add up to for the grown up Judt, that sophisticated citizen of Intelligentsia?  This:

As for the madeleine that would trigger the memory?  Naan dunked in matzohball soup, served by a Yiddish-speaking waiter from Madras.  We are what we ate.  And I am very English

For me, it would be the wonton soup from the long lost Yee’s Canton Café — the consequence of having a Jewish historian of China for a father, who declared that the Chief Rabbinate’s writ ended at the door to a Chinese restaurant — followed by my mothers’ leg of lamb with red currant jelly.  You?

Image:  J. Vermeer, The Geographer, c. 1668-1669.

 

For rage and sorrow…

September 16, 2011

…You might want to check out Susan from 29′s diary over at GOS, in which she writes on the moral horror that was a Republican Presidential debate in which the audience cheered the death of an uninsured man — Susan’s brother, Steve Patience.

I won’t say that the moment — or that audience — defines America.

But America is a place where poor — and not so badly off, in fact — suffer and die with what a medical student I once knew termed “financial arrest” within a badly broken medical system.

It’s a place where we know we can do better, and are in fact beginning to do so — not enough, but it’s a start — as long as the health care bill survives.

At the same time, America is indeed the place in which the “I’ve got mine, Jack” crowd that gets loud at the news of Steve Patience’s death could define who we all are for decades to come.

So when you think of all the ways Obama has betrayed you  this week, or how the Democratic congressman or senator representing you or the next door district or state just hasn’t gotten on top of what this country needs, or really, how both major parties are tied in way too tightly with the monied interests — there’s reality to be found there.

As a practical matter, for the next thirteen months, whatever truth there is to any of our grievances with our Democratic leaders doesn’t matter.  Not one damn bit.  (I.e. – what Tim F. says.)

Bonus video:  Susan of 29 in her own words, courtesy of Move On:

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You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man (And Woman)…

September 16, 2011

…You just can’t tell how much damage they will do.

The reality-based community took it on the chin again this week in a whole bunch of ways.  One that caught my eye came in this exchange, reported in TPM:

“[I]f you want a role that has benefit programs for older Americans, like the ones we’ve had in the past, and that operate for the rest of the government like the ones we’ve had in the past, then more tax revenue is needed than under current tax rates,” [Congressional Budget Office chief Doug]Elmendorf said. “On the other hand, if one wants those tax rates, then one has to make very significant changes in spending programs for older Americans” or all the rest of the government’s functions.

Given where Congress finds itself — a separate story that began over a year ago — that’s the debate Democrats want to be having. Should we roll back safety net programs in order not to increase taxes on the wealthy?…And it’s precisely the debate Republicans do not want to have. So they spent Tuesday trying to reorient the conversation: instead of arguing in favor of their preferred and informed decisions about the future of the country, they posited a scenario where crisis is upon us already and the only plausible way to avert fiscal catastrophe and help the country end its economic slump is to cut, cut, cut right now.

“There’s a recent report by Alberto Alesina of Harvard University,” noted Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), “showing that the most successful and pro-growth deficit reduction took place in countries that relied chiefly on austerity programs, spending cuts. And nations that relied more on tax increases were less successful in reducing the deficits and had slower economic growth.”

Ah, one more zombie lie — or rather an error, or failed analysis turned into a public lie by those who repeat it.

Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna published this paper in 2009.  Portman accurately described what it claimed to demonstrate.  To say, as Brian Beutler does in the TPM piece, that this work is controversial is surely true — just as remarking that a blue whale is large is a valid statement.  Here’s Krugman discussing it shortly after publication, capturing the flavor of informed (as in, statistics-competent) criticism.  There are, of course, a wealth of other takes a google’s length away.

But the real problem is that Krugman’s and others’ initial questions of the work, were, of course correct.

To put it in the way natural scientists do when confronted by similar challenges to well-established knowledge, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Here, if you want to say something contrarian about experiences as empirically well documented as the effects of fiscal austerity on economies, you need to nail every facet of the argument.  You don’t just get to say the speed of light in a vacuum in the early universe was different from that speed now (a real claim).  You gotta prove it.  So far, eighty years of trying to do so for both the tired light hypothesis and the anti-Keynsian fairy-dusters have been unsuccessful.

This latest attempt to assert (spherical) cows are (spheroidal) chickens is no different.  The most recent analysis of Alesina and Ardagna’s claims comes  in this report from the IMF research shop.  Essentially, the new work shows, the Harvard team constructed their data universe in way that led them into a fundamental mistake, as Krugman’s describes:

…results purporting to show economic expansion following spending cuts and/or tax increases were based on a statistical illusion: an expanding economy can often lead to rising revenue and/or falling spending (e.g. because safety-net spending falls or because the government cuts back in an attempt to cool off inflationary pressures). And as a result, what the Alesina-Ardagna results capture is muddle by reverse causation.

The IMF authors say something similar with proper professional decorum r — which makes their conclusion yet more rhetorically devastating:

Estimation results based on measuring discretionary changes in fiscal policy using cyclically-adjusted fiscal data––a practice often used in the literature––suggest that fiscal consolidation stimulates private domestic demand in the short term, providing support for the hypothesis. This result is consistent with a literature that finds that fiscal contractions can be expansionary. However, our analysis suggests that using cyclically-adjusted data to estimate the effects of fiscal consolidation biases the analysis toward overstating expansionary effects.

In contrast, estimation results based on fiscal actions identified directly from contemporaneous policy documents provide little support for the expansionary austerity hypothesis. In particular, we compile an international dataset of fiscal policy adjustments motivated by a desire to reduce the budget deficit and not in response to current and prospective economic conditions using the Romer and Romer (2010) historical approach. Based on the fiscal actions thus identified, our baseline specification implies that a 1 percent of GDP fiscal consolidation reduces real private consumption by 0.75 percent within two years, while real GDP declines by 0.62 percent. The baseline results survive a battery of robustness tests. Our main finding that fiscal consolidation is contractionary holds up in cases where one would most expect fiscal consolidation to raise private domestic demand. In particular, even large spending-based fiscal retrenchments are contractionary, as are fiscal consolidations occurring in economies with a high perceived sovereign default risk.

Put that more simply:  you need to look at what really happened during the actual events you want to understand if you are going to make any sense of the situation.  When you look at a derived model of those events, you miss what people actually said and did, and you are vulnerable to a whole host of methodological traps to which any act of model-making is subject — and hence you screw up.  Which is what the Harvard pair appears to have done.

I don’t know what Alesina and Ardagna will say to all this, or about the use of their conclusions by Senator Portman.  But, of course, once it’s out there, they could issue mea culpas from the balcony in St. Peter’s Square, and it wouldn’t matter.

That’s the nub:  the real issue is that credentialed economists produced work that does not conform to reality — but does conform to what our friends in the Comfort the Comfortable lobby would wish to be true…and hence, it will never die.  Just to repeat:  it is not true that cutting demand in an economy with a demand gap in the gazillions will magically conjure up folks willing to spend.

Oh — and one more thing:  Portman knew, or should have, that the work he cited was, to say it most nicely, unproven. The IMF research, only the latest in a series of demonstrations of flaws in the Alesina-Ardagna conclusions, was released early in the summer, more than two months before the hearing this week.

If Portman did not pick up on work of direct relevance to their argument about the proper course for our country to steer, then he and his staff are incompetent, and should have no role in setting policy for a rowboat, much less for a society and economy on which the lives and happiness billions at home and abroad depend.  If he did know about it, then he’s a lying scum who has no business in any position of power.

You make the call.

So, just to get back to the underlying reality (and to belabor the obvious one more time): as the British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne was reminded this week, starving an already famished economy of someone, anyone, the government willing to spend is the way to screw your economy, and especially those most vulnerable in it.

Which, of course, is exactly what the Republican deficit hallelujah chorus is trying (and mostly succeeding) in doing to us.

Images:  David Vinckboons, Distribution of Loaves to the Poorbefore 1650.

Viktor Oliva, The Absinthe Drinker, 1901

Department of Cool: Housing Division

September 15, 2011

Not to go all MIT on y’all, but this piece from the news office hit my desktop today.

The gist:  a design studio taught within the MIT Department of Architecture in 2009 posed the challenge of coming up with a house design that could be built for $1,000, with the idea that such housing could be used in the wake of natural disasters like the then fresh-in-memory Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

Masters student Ying chee Chui came up with a 500 square foot dwelling that has now been built in a town in Sichuan for $5,925.  Dubbed a “Pinwheel House,”…

It has a modular layout, with rectangular room units surrounding a central courtyard space. “The module can be duplicated and rotated, and then it becomes a house,” Chui says. “The construction is easy enough, because if you know how to build a single module, you can build the whole house.”

Part of the boost in cost from the design target came from enlarging the original plan to 800 sq. ft., and part reflects prototyping costs — but the point is being made:  there are alternative approaches to both design and construction methodology that can produce good housing for a much larger swath of the world’s people than now possess it.

Two postscripts:  first:  this year’s version of the same studio course is looking at $10K houses for Japan in the wake of the earthquake-tsunami disaster.

Second:  the linked article is sadly lacking in the heart of the cool — the tech within and the details of the layout and production methods for the Sichuan prototype as it now exists.  I’ll try to track those down and post later.

Image:  Meister der Weltenchronik, Construction of the Tower of Babel, c. 1380

What Fallows Says

September 10, 2011

Here’s James Fallows on, as he puts it, the sexiness of infrastructure.

The post gives a couple of examples of what it’s like to live with decaying infrastructure.  One of the cases Fallows considers is the possible role of a failure in the Russian air safety system in the crash this week that killed the Lokomotiv hockey team — a meditation that should strike fear into the heart of anyone flying under the gaze of a GOP-gutted FAA.

Fallows’ conclusion:

…the kinds of investments Obama was talking about constitute real wealth for a country, and their lack means real squalor, even though they are “public” wealth rather than belonging to anyone in particular.

Well, yeah.

The only truly astonishing aspect to what’s a very moderate post in both tone and content is that there is any controversy at all over a proposal to spending free dollars to rebuild America.

Image: New York City municipal airports, WPA poster, ca. 1937.

I Fired Dat Staff So I Could Hire Distaff

September 7, 2011

So — I have this great FDR/Eric Cantor post cooking, and another on some highly wonkish political science offering insight into the next election on the basis of analysis of 2008′s dinner dance, and much more good stuff besides, but…

….I’m sitting here contemplating (that’s a nice word) bourbon (descending steadily on the $/dram scale as I work through the evening) in response to the third-of-four-quadrants close encounter with my oral surgeon today.  Gingivitis! Dont’ try this at home kids!


(Wincing yet?  Good.  Misery loves company.)

So no actually useful blogging from this quarter.  Sorry.

Besides, there’s nothing on but crazy folk that some kind person should take back inside to the nice padded room.  Feed them their gruel with blunted spoons and no one will get hurt.  No Mitt — you can’t whack Rick with your Social Security Bear.

But, hey.  All this gives me an excuse to extend  the discussion from the other night, when I tagged Freddie Mercury as one of the top candidates for the title best male rock and roll vocalist ever.

Someone subsequently said, in essence, what about the women?

Well, what about them?

Linda Ronstadt appeared in the thread as the leading candidate, and while I concur that she’s a fabulous artist, I can’t bring myself to see her quite as a rock avatar.  If you extend to jazz there are some fabulous candidates, from Billie Holiday to Cassandra Wilson and so many more…or perhaps really Billie Holiday and you can probably stop there.  You want to go to blues and you get some more…for example I defy you to say Koko Taylor isn’t on your list.  And then there’s Aretha.

You want diva-tude? Well in the last thread we had Annie Lennox mentioned, and to keep the Freddie vibe going just one more minute, you can always listen to this remarkable duet…and you can’t tell me she doesn’t have the stage presence and the voice. (And that dress!)  The great country voices….and, and, and — you get it.  No one answer, lots of great music whilst we argue.

But talkin’ rock and roll, plain and simple?  I don’t know; I haven’t got a slam dunk candidate.  Janis Joplin would have been the obvious one in my youth, were it not for Grace Slick before she wandered off into I don’t know what (and actually, listening again, Janis, still wins)…and so  on.

So why not start a thread on this, and for an actual living, music making wonder who’s injecting herself into the debate, how about that Grace Potter?  I saw some comment on one youtube or another that called her the daughter Janis never knew she had, and that’s not far off.

Here she is with Joe Satriani and others, purely owning Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer.”

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So have at it:  open (musical) thread with which to wash all those Republicans out of your hair.

Image:  Jan Steen, The Dentist1651

Why, Knock Me Down With a Feather: Megan McArdle is Still Always Wrong, Climate Science Edition

September 5, 2011

Warning:  This post is way too long.  I mean, really.  You have been warned.

I’ve been off the McArdle beat for a while.  I find I need to take breaks if I’m to have any hope of (a) retaining sanity in the face of unanswerable questions implicit in our current media ecosystem, and (b) getting work that actually matters to me done that would otherwise be derailed by overloaded outrage circuits tripped by reading McArdle’s…musings are, I guess, the kindest way to describe them.

But a BJ commenter (name now lost to a hyperactive “delete” finger on my email…sorry) pointed me to this bit on climate science from a week or two ago, and it’s been sticking in my craw ever since.  In it, she quotes at length from a post at the Volokh Conspiracy by Jonathan Adler, an environmental law specialist with a libertarian and wingnut-thinktank background.

The post McArdle endorses is Adler’s defense of Chris Christie against charges of being soft on global warming.  Adler denounces the GOP fundamentalism that damns to the 9th circle those Republicans with the temerity to hold such views. His fear, he writes, is that such orthodoxy will lock that party into “anti-science know-nothingism” (his phrase).  To which I would reply, “ya think?” — or rather, “that train long since left the station, pilgrim.”

There’s plenty to argue with in Adler’s formulation of Christie’s alleged connection to the reality based community — but this post is about McArdle’s follies, not any intellectual sins Adler may have committed.

And follies there are in plenty when McArdle decides to amplify Adler’s plaint about pre-Copernicans in the GOP.  Why don’t we take a look?

McArdle begins her gloss in classic form:

I don’t think that science denialism is the exclusive province of the GOP, but it’s extremely disappointing whenever either side does it.

Both sides do it!  Who could have predicted such a claim?  And who could have anticipated that McArdle would offer no examples of denialism by any mainstream Democrat?

Did I miss the part where President Obama asserted that the Apollo missions were faked, Tranquility Base rather existing only on a Hollywood backlot?  While I was off the grid for a couple of weeks in August, did Chuck Schumer suddenly announce that Democrats must all sign a pledge asserting that π = 3?

Come on, oh Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic:  inquiring minds want to know what Democrats’ sins you think compare to a near-unanimous denial of the reality of climate change and the theory of evolution by natural selection by the current slate of candidates for the GOP nomination to serve as President of the United States?  Anything?

Onwards!

As longtime readers known, I have been extremely critical of the attitude that some climate scientists seem to have developed towards dissent, and what you might call the PR aspect of their work.

I beg  your pardon. It is not the climate science crowd that has been out using state power  in an attempt to crush all opposition.  Rather, climate scientists have faced real and consequential assaults, from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s witch hunting to the real damage done by all those who piled on to the Breitbart/O’Keefe-style selective quoting from stolen emails in what was called the “Climategate” non-scandal.  Did anyone notice that every inquiry into this false controversy has come up with…nothing?

All of which is to say that there are indeed views that are being shouted down by a contemptuous opposition incapable of accepting anything that contradicts their cherished worldview — and those authoritarian assaults on reasoned debate come from the so called “skeptic” crowd.

The still deeper problem, of course, is that those ideologically committed to the view that global warming is a hoax have themselves mastered modern PR, so that, with the connivance of an incompetent or malicious media (to which faction does McArdle belong…or could this this a case of a nonexcluded middle?–ed.), junk routinely reaches the public as fact.* [much more detail at the footnote]

But to the matter at hand, McArdle’s engaged in classic misdirection.  The researcher’s job is to do the best science that he or she can.  A real journalist would then attempt to understand and explain to a broad audience what the results from such work now suggest.  Here’s McArdle’s attempt:

Nonetheless, I am quite convinced that the planet is warming,

Why thank you, Ms. McArdle.  Your judgment is just what’s been needed to set all this to rest.

and fairly convinced that human beings play a role in this.

Well, that settles it, doesn’t it?

In fact, this one sentence captures much of why McArdle is (or ought to be) such an embarrassment to her employer.  Bluntly, McArdle lacks the capacity to have an opinion on this matter.

That’s the core issue, really, at least for me, in my guise as a science writer and teacher of the skill.  The study of climate and climate change involves a large number of disciplines and sub-disciplines: physics, chemistry, oceanograpy, atmospheric studies, statistics, computer science and much, much more.  It turns on detailed and complex investigations of the interaction between domains each of which are demanding enough to reward a life’s study:  just think about what needs to be worked out about the connections between the biosphere, the atmosphere, the liquid ocean and that part of the global water supply trapped in ice, and so on through most of the modern science curriculum.

Every single specialty involved takes the better part of a decade of specialized training to master to the point where you can run your own lab.  Working the interdisciplinary trick takes groups of people working for quite a while just to be sure they understand each other.  Climate science in its modern form dates really only back to the late seventies or early eighties, when the scientific community began to recognize the vital importance of making sense of what people were finding out across what had been quite distinct fields — or perhaps it is more accurate to say that this turning point came when both the knowledge and the instruments needed to make key observations reached a critical point.

That is:  you can say with a lot of truth that modern climate science dates from the moment when sufficiently powerful computers emerged to run the first plausible three-d models, and when satellites that could do fine-grained remote sensing first started delivering data.  That would be, as it happens, somewhere around the late seventies to the mid 1980s. (You can read a bit more about this in my first book Ice Time [terrible title!], now long out of print, but available for sums reaching as low as … one cent, and glossed very nicely here by Eric Roston, who examines that now 20+ year old book from a perspective informed by what we’ve learned since.)

So it’s a young science, and a difficult one, demanding  a lot of time and training and strong collaborations to produce useful work.  That means there really are some opinions that are much better than others, and even within science, some opinions that are genuinely worthless, as they are come from folks who literally don’t know what they are talking about.  These folks are dangerous for reporters, because naive (or bad-faith) journalists will see a real scientific qualification attached to some name, and hear lots of cool sounding difficult words that sound very much like technical stuff, and can then conclude whatever he or she wants to, believing him or herself to be informed by Science!

So what’s a responsible journalist to do?  Well — take the time.  Go to meetings.  Talk to lots of scientists.  Read constantly.  Check what you write with people who are actually doing the kind of work that bears on the question. Pay attention to those who make a lot of what look like mistakes; if the same kinds of errors get repeated after correction, then you have found someone not playing straight.  (The argument from negative authority is much more robust than its reciprocal.)

Then take more time.

There is a reason that the really good journalists covering this story are people like Andy Revkin, who published his first book on climate change months before my mine came out in 1989.  Or folks like Mike Lemonick, who has covered this area for Time magazine and others for almost as long.  Or Elizabeth Kolbert, who spent years turning herself into a competent — and better! — interrogator of this field after an earlier career spent on other beats; or Eric Roston, mentioned above, who spent three years working through a biography of carbon to present a from-the-ground-up account of (among much else) why virtually everyone capable of holding an informed view recognizes the reality of anthropogenic global warming; or any of the many honorable others who actually have devoted themselves to mastering this beat.  This kind of science coverage takes sustained effort, which is why you could have counted me among this group twenty years ago, but not now:  I’ve shifted my focus several times since those years in the ’80s when I was consumed by the real excitement of what this new science could do.

All that to say that Megan McArdle literally doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know.  She lacks any of the apparatus to make a meaningful statement on this subject.  A good journalist recognizes when they’re out of their depth, and they shut up, or get help.  McArdle does neither — or rather, when she seeks validation for her pre-digested thoughts (“I’m…fairly convinced!” — by all that the FSM deems holy!) — she does so from precisely the kind of folks who reveal just what McArdle herself is really on about:

(When you’ve got Reason’s Ron Bailey, Cato’s Patrick Michaels, and Jonathan Adler, you’ve convinced me).

Umm, no.

These are pundits who — to be fair — have spent a fair bit effort on this issue.  They are thus not as uninformed as McArdle herself — but they are advocates for a particular view of human agency and autonomy, and not actual experts on the detailed progress of climate science.  They may get as far as the IPCC reports, and plenty of the toilet paper produced by the skeptic propaganda machine, (see, as always, Oreskes and Conway’s vital Merchants of Doubt for the gory details).  But even the environmental law expertise that Adler may bring to bear is not the same thing as engagement with the beat, nor any substitute for actual technical competence.

Even were one to grant to these three the standing that McArdle does, she still fails of her basic responsibility as a journalist.  It’s not just that spinners aren’t even secondary sources.  McArdle is utterly unqualified to have an opinion of her own because, by her own admission she has outsourced her brain on this issue and that she hasn’t and won’t do the actual work needed to have even a beginner’s grasp of this story.  Caveat lector

And still — by Blackbeard’s ghost! — there’s more:

I reserve the right to be skeptical about particular claims about effect…

McArdle can, of course, be skeptical about anything at all.  The question is whether anyone with intelligence to outrank a ficus should give any credence to such concerns.  Remember: she’s already told you that she has no personal competence in this field

…(particularly when those claims come via people who implausibly insist that every major effect will be negative)

Ah yes.  Al Gore is fat.  Except, of course, climate science as a field does not so insist.

Take, for example, the extensive discussion of climate feedbacks in what amounts to a manifesto for what real climate researchers should do (and are now doing), the 2003 National Academy of Sciences report Understanding Climate Change FeedbacksThere the nation’s top scientific institution lays out a meticulous account of the major feedbacks and the necessary research program needed to understand what impact, positive or negative, each such process may have.  Or you could look to the most recent IPCC analysis, the nearest thing that exists to a consensus document reviewing the current state of knowledge about climate change — exactly the people whose willingness to entertain contrary results McArdle here disdains.  In the FAQ [largish PDF] that accompanies the main report, you will find, among much else, this statement:

Additional important feedback mechanisms involve clouds. Clouds are effective at absorbing infrared radiation and therefore exert a large greenhouse effect, thus warming the Earth. Clouds are also effective at reflecting away incoming solar radiation, thus cooling the Earth. A change in almost any aspect of clouds, such as their type, location, water content, cloud altitude, particle size and shape, or lifetimes, affects the degree to which clouds warm or cool the Earth. Some changes amplify warming while others diminish it. [Italics added] Much research is in progress to better understand how clouds change in response to climate warming, and how these changes affect climate through various feedback mechanisms.

Of course, McArdle is not trying to engage in principled argument here.  She may not know or perhaps she simply does not care about the actual practice of climate scientists.  But the truth is there to be found, easily recovered with minimal effort, that the global climate change research community has a record extending back decades of trying to figure out the interlocking positive and negative feedback mechanisms that shape climate change.

Ah — but I’m missing McArdle’s point here.  Really, we should read this as a tell, the reveal of the con she’s been running all this long while.  She’s already shown her intellectual generosity by grandly conceding that anthropogenic climate change is real.  Now, she gets to go all “even-the-liberal-New Republic” on us and tell us why that concession doesn’t matter.  See, e.g., her very next line:

and, of course, of ludicrous worries that global warming will cause aliens to destroy us.

Nothing to see here, move along.

Nothing, that is except for an almost textbook example of dishonest writing.  These ludicrous worries that do not exist serve nicely to suggest that those concerned about the actual consequences of global warming are keeping company with folks whose fillings serve as antennae tuned to Alpha Centauri.  This is one way to fight a political action when the facts are against you:  ridicule your opponents for stuff they never said.

But generally, I think global warming is happening, and even that we should probably do something about that, though I’m flexible on “something.”

I.e. we should do nothing.

See above — once you’ve said that those who worry about severe consequences of global warming are delusional, you’ve kind of undercut any call to action. And, just to add a stray thought:  given my corollary to DeLong’s law, that McArdle is always wrong, and when you think she’s right, refer to statement one, I might start to question the reality of global warming myself, were it not for the fact that the rest of this piece so clearly demonstrates that she does not accept the actual meaning of that view.

However. Even if you disagree, it is reprehensible to have a litmus test around empirical matters of fact. (I’m not a fan of litmus tests in general, but I suppose it’s fair enough to say “If you want marginal tax rates of 70% on the wealthy, you don’t belong in today’s GOP”).

Gotta move on sometime, so I won’t whale on this, except to note the implied litmus test to which McArdle submitted herself above:  climate change only becomes real to her when ideological soul-mates say it is so.  Heaven forfend she take the word of someone who actually knows something about the subject.  Nope.  It had to wait for some pundit with whom she already agreed before she could make the concession.

What these Republicans are doing to people like Chris Christie is no better than what Harvard did to Larry Summers when he suggested that it was possible that women had a different IQ distribution than men.

Oh, this zombie lie.

Not to beat a truly dead horse, but for those of us who actually have some proximity to Harvard, and, as it happens, who know some of the women on its faculty, it’s important to note that Summers survived that flap by about a year, during which a number of other incidents occurred that cast doubt on his competence.

For example, his disastrous management of Harvard’s finances would only become obvious in 2008-9, but in the year between his statements about women and IQ and his resignation, he lost significant support among the actual decision makers at Harvard (i.e., not its Arts and Sciences faculty)  over the handling of the Andrei Shleifer case.  Shleifer, an economist on Harvard’s faculty and was found to have committed insider trading while working on a Harvard-led project aiding the privatization of Russia’s post-Soviet economy.  The settlement of the Shleifer case cost the university $26.5 million — and while Summers had recused himself from anything to do with the case, its outcome represented a major blow to his standing at Harvard.

There were in fact a number of other contributing factors that led the only folks with a vote (again, not the faculty) to ease Summers out.  Just a hint — if you look at how Harvard is actually run, it becomes notable that the deans of Harvard’s various schools did not leap to Summers’ defense in his time of need.  All of which is to say that the assertion that Harvard tossed out its president just because he said something ill-informed about women fails on even the most cursory inquiry.  But even such minimal curiosity is what McArdle, as I’ve come to expect, will not pursue, if there’s a risk she might find out something that contradicts a cherished fable.

And still there’s more!

Facts are not good or bad; they are correct or incorrect.

Snicker. (And not in a PoMo way.)

And a policy based on hysterical refusal to consider all possible facts is neither good, nor correct.

In that case, someone with the initials MM has a lot of ‘splainin to do about just about every claim current GOP candidates are making about the role lower taxes on the wealthy have on economic growth.  Just sayin’.

If someone is wrong about the facts, you should explain to them, calmly and concisely, why they are wrong. If it’s really that obvious, it shouldn’t be hard to convince them.

Uh.  I just can’t.  The snark writes itself — and I’ll let everyone here enjoy their individual takes on what one should say here.  That’s why the good FSM created comment threads.

When people start trying to expel heretics because of disagreements over facts, it suggests that they suspect–even know–that the facts are not on their side. Which is, frankly, what I tend to think is happening here. If open argument is going to force your ideology to confront uncomfortable facts, you create a closed circle that the facts can’t penetrate.

Still can’t stop giggling.  Have at it.

If the circle is big enough, the geocentric universe gets a few hundred more years before the defensive perimeter cracks.

What?

Message to McArdle:  the Catholic Church has indeed survived that anti-science episode.**  But the geocentric universe lasted exactly…well I guess not zero years, but pretty nearly so after the publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632.  Geocentrism and the broader disassembling of classical astronomy had, of course, already largely been undone by the early 1600s, at least among the community of the learned.  The conventional sequence — from Copernicus, with his still artificially circular orbits, to Kepler’s fitting of the correct elliptical shapes to the paths traced by the planets (and the mathematical advances captured in his three descriptive laws, to Galileo’s observations of the Jovian system, with its moons orbiting a central body in a strikingly clear model of a the kind of heavenly motion Copernicus advanced, published in 1610 — created a broad basr on which to support the fundamental claim of heliocentrism.  By the 1630s, the Inquisition could condemn, but minds living in those expanding parts of Europe no longer subject to Rome’s authority could and did ignore any assertion of pontifical judgment about scientific fact — a development that did precisely the kind of damage to the cause of religion that Galileo himself had anticipated in his letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in 1615.

Or to put all this another way:  the current closed GOP circle is as unlikely as the Vatican’s was ever to be big enough. The U.S. may suffer — greatly — if we ignore basic facts.  We may, likely will, do great harm to others. But those nations and cultures that don’t listen to the McArdles of the world, and all their kin?  Well, like Isaac Newton’s England, I expect they’ll do fine, even if we languish under President Perry in predicaments of our own making.

Why so long on what was obviously a rhetorical grace(less) note?  Because it is a microcosm of the McArdle approach to her life’s work.  This invocation of Galileo’s trial is ignorant of basic facts, false in its implication, historically obtuse and hell, just plain stupid (not to mention kind of meaningless).  I guess it sounded kind of clever to McArdle, which meant, on the evidence, that she didn’t pause to ask if the example made sense.  It didn’t, and it doesn’t, and should be taken as the warning it is:  you can’t take any claim McArdle makes as valid until thrice checked.

Of course, that also means a few hundred years invested in building an institution that cannot survive in a heliocentric solar system.

Uh.  Last I looked Pope Benedict still held sway within Vatican City, honored by Catholics the world round.  Even the ramifications of a transnational conspiracy to cover up acts of sexual violence against children seems set to do more than temporary damage to the institution.  That fact may or may not fill you with pleasure/relief/loathing…but the notion that somehow the contemporary Catholic Church is paying the price for Galileo’s fate is simply phaffing on McArdle’s part — beneath notice except as a further instance of a seemingly incurable lack of rigor in her work.

Maybe the skeptics are right and AGW is minor, or not happening at all. But on the off chance that they’re wrong,

Uh…”off chance…” Not going to rehearse all that’s gone before, but just to say, one more time:  virtually every scientist with actual knowledge of the data, the underlying methods, and the theory of climate science have been saying for some time that AGW is real and consequential.  McArdle may not like that conclusion; she nonetheless has no standing to dismiss it.

the GOP needs to be the sort of pluralistic body that can survive and thrive on a steady diet of accurate data–no matter what those data say.

I agree.  I also think that this is where the whole post reveals itself as a smoke screen to confuse others in the media into the view that a fictional GOP that could thrive on data actually exists.

If enough GOP-identified pundits say a few nice things about positions they simultaneously dismiss (a standard trick within David Brooks’ playbook, of course, and much of McArdle’s raison d’etre) then the useful idiots they count as colleagues can write that once in power a Republican president and congress might not be entirely batshit crazy.  That we have plenty of evidence that this view is false (2001-2009; GOP governors/legislators/the Boehner-Cantor led house since 2010) can be ignored, as long as the Business and Economics Editor of the Atlantic reassures her friends that there really are some Republicans with whom you could have a chat and a drink.

That, as I read it, is really the point of a post like this…

…Enough.  Almost five thousand words on a tossed off bit of nonsense by someone whose work is, frankly, trivial, no matter how much influence it may have within a couple of corners of the Village.

I guess I explode into these periodic rants not so much because anything McArdle actually writes is so much more egregious than hundreds of effusions spurting daily from those carbuncles on the body politic that make up the right-blogosphere.  Rather, it’s that she does so under the cloak of, and at an institution venerable within a craft I hold dear, that of serious, reasoned, public journalism.  This post really is bizarrely too long, so I’m not going to expand on a point I’ve made before.  But the particular form of intellectual dishonesty with which McArdle plies her trade does damage to the country — and less consequentially, but probably more severely to all those directly associated with her work at The Atlantic.

*Case in point:  over the couple of weeks I’ve been picking away at this post, this story has bubbled up.  I believe John linked to it — but the gist is that a journal editor resigned when it became clear that some climate denialist “scientists” snuck a junk paper past the peer review process of  the journal Remote Sensing.  That paper repeated previously debunked claims that satellite data contradict model results, fail to account for the impact of clouds on the radiative balance of the earth, and thus overstate the risk of warming.  The editor resigned because it became very clear on reflection that this paper should have been flagged by what was clearly a flawed peer review.  On the level of basic craft, the paper failed to meet the most elementary requirements of a scientific claim:  “no statistical significance of results, error bars or uncertainties are given either in the figures or discussed in the text. As to the content — the core claims of the paper are simply wrong, and they are so in elementary ways, rendered meaningless by errors of both method and an actual grasp of the range of observational data:

Overall, the argument made in all of these papers to support the conjecture that clouds are forcing the climate (rather than a feedback) is extremely weak. What they do is show some data, then they show a very simple model with some free parameters that they tweak until they fit the data. They then conclude that their model is right. However, if the underlying model is wrong, then the agreement between the model and data proves nothing.

I am working on a paper that will show that, if you look carefully at the magnitudes of the individual terms of their model, the model is obviously wrong. In fact, if [University of Alabama at Huntsville's Roy] Spencer were right, then clouds would be a major cause of El Niño cycles—which we know is not correct. Talk to any ENSO expert and tell them that clouds cause ENSO and they’ll laugh, at you.

Why would someone nominally a science commit such serial and serious errors?   Spencer himself tells us.  He is the author of a number of interesting works — including one flawed study withdrawn for plagiarism, among other sins, and this latest fiasco — but the actual content of his stuff doesn’t matter.  Rather, it is crucial only that Spencer can call himself a scientist, and can be termed as such by the echo chamber right-wing media that takes fatally flawed “research” and retails it to a public as the real deal.  Which is exactly what Spencer says he wants to achieve:

“I would wager that my job has helped save our economy from the economic ravages of out-of-control environmental extremism. I view my job a little like a legislator, supported by the taxpayer, to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to minimize the role of government.”

Well, fine, if you are lobbyist, an advocate, or a Know-Nothing GOP candidate for president.  But if you call yourself a scientist and purport to take part in the common enterprise that is the advance of human knowledge…with that statement you’ve just declared yourself an enemy of whole endeavor.  You can’t serve two masters, both your ideological commitment and nature.  You have to choose — and Spencer clearly has, opting to put out propaganda contradicted by the testimony of nature in order to defend views that comfort the comfortable.

This is just one example — but it’s why climate scientists don’t have a lot of sympathy for “dissenters” who are in fact propaganda hacks –self admitted in this case.  Rather, they have to work overtime in never-really-successful attempts to counter the real damage done by pieces like this both to science and to any kind of real deliberation on the proper policy to adopt in the face of AGW.  We surely need a better media.

**Yes, I’m aware that McArdle would probably claim that she was merely saying the Catholic Church itself retained its geocentric views for centuries– but that’s both not exactly true (plenty of folks within the church understood and accepted the advance of knowledge on this question, whatever dogma decreed) and not on point to the suggestion she then tries to make, that such myopia produced an institution that is having trouble surviving now.

Images:   William Blake, The Ancient of Days (God the Geometer),1794

Pieter Breughel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558 (Engraved by Philipp Galle)

John Barnard Whittaker, Comedy and Tragedy, c. 1883.

Pieter de Bloot, Tavern Interior1630s.


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