Words to live by…

The general rule to remember is that if some discipline seems less developed than your own, it’s probably not because the researchers aren’t as smart as you are, it’s because the subject is harder

(courtesy of Paul Krugman.)

This is why as I snarked yesterday, economists/business strategists might want to be a little more circumspect in the scorn for wooly headed climate scientists.

Image:  “Mathematics concept collage.”  Licensed under a GNU Free Documenation License, version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation.  Source:  Wikimedia Commons. 

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9 Comments on “Words to live by…”


  1. I doubt you’ll ever find a physicist who’ll agree, though a good friend of mine (JF – you’ve met him) who’s a physics prof at Berkeley was long ago chagrined to find out that his population geneticist then-girlfriend knew more math than he did.

  2. Steven Postrel Says:

    Don’t shoot the messenger. I agree with you–I think that the problems are really hard. But the quality of the answers has been oversold. Climate researchers’ IQ is not in question–but their judgment about what can be done with their scholarship is very much in question. Not just at the level of prediction, but at the level of policy evaluation and control.

    Just one of many issues to consider is the following thought experiment–if there were a provable natural trend toward cooling would anyone be arguing for increased CO2 emissions to balance and stabilize the climate? Answer: When pigs fly. Or if the world were warming up on its own, would anyone propose CO2 emission reductions as a reasonable policy response? Again: Not very likely.

    Setting aside any unworthy ideological reasons for this divergence, when the problem is framed this way it’s easier to see how ludicrous an international agreement on the appropriate global average temperature is. Husbands and wives can’t agree on thermostat settings in their living rooms, and we are going to have a political process that is going to usefully aggregate the preferences of the Haitans, Lapps, Alpine dwellers, and Bangladeshis? It is, strictly speaking, nuts.

    We would not be prepared to engage in Herculean and costly efforts to modify climate in support of internationally agreed thermal norms if those modifications were designed to artifically stabilize the climate. We should be no more willing to engage in Herculean and costly efforts in this vein when the climate is naturally stable. It is the costs and benefits that should count, not what is “natural” and what is “artificial.”

    To me, the obvious best option is to adapt, as humans have always done, rather than engage in grandiose climate-planning schemes. The idea of planning something as complex as the world weather system (and please, climate is just a time-average of weather) is so unrealistic, so caught up in twentieth-century fantasies of technocracy and collectivism, that it is hard to credit that smart people actually take it seriously.

    And if we are going to engage in such a far-fetched enterprise, it seems to me that emissions reductions are just about the worst way to do it; they implicate the whole economy, require huge redistributions of cost and benefit, are hard to control and reverse, can’t be experimented with at low cost to see if they work, and so on. What we would need would be methods that could be applied without changing much other human activity, that could be reversed when desired and experimented with cheaply. Greg Benford has made a strong case that some sort of albedo-increasing particulate-injection strategy should be looked at now to determine its feasibility. It’s hard to disagree, as long as we’re forced to pretend that adaptation isn’t the best solution.


  3. I personally like the appearance of the word “probably” in the original quote … 🙂


  4. A few notes in response to Steven Postrel:

    Most of what you’ve written is more rhetoric than argument. Thought experiments of the kind you suggest seldom prove anything to the unconvinced. If we were heading toward an ice age, of course we’d consider CO2 as a remedy, though probably not as a sole remedy. I would, anyway.

    The connubial thermostat is a funny example but also not convincing. After all, husbands and wives do generally agree on a thermostat setting, even if they grouse about it. And there has been substantial political progress toward an international agreement, even absent the sincere participation of the United States. Yes, China, too, remains an especially important barrier.

    We should be no more willing to engage in Herculean and costly efforts in this vein when the climate is naturally stable.

    From context, I assume you meant “naturally unstable.” The reason that natural vs. artificial matters is experience. More stable, less damaged ecosystems provide longer term sustainable benefits. This is not measured by the short-run emphasis of business, in which the exploitation of externalities is a consistent road to profit.

    The best option is to adapt, but reducing carbon emissions is itself an adaptation, just a social one rather than a technological one. There’s no reason to exclude any sort of adaptation. That said, by this point in the warming, new technological adaptations will surely be required on at least two counts: 1) reduction of emissions won’t be fast enough if it comes at all, and 2) the emerging sources in Asia are a tough problem against which we need insurance if not more.

    Thanks, by the way, for the lucid explication of cap and trade vs. carbon tax.

  5. Steven Postrel Says:

    LL: I’m glad you liked the cap vs. tax thing. I don’t think I’ve changed too many minds with it, but I’m not sure that most of the people who get into this stuff really care about efficiency or effectiveness, anyway. There’s a widespread symbolic desire to demonstrate “caring” and “concern,” but it doesn’t seem to translate into specific goals for policy. Note the current panic about high gas prices. The “concerned” should be applauding, as the item by Virginia that you linked to earlier notes.

    I have a few thoughts about your remarks:

    1) Your spurious distinction between rhetoric and argument reveals exactly what is often wrong with “scientific” attempts to decide on policy questions–people delude themselves that policy conclusions follow ineluctably from empirical premises. They do not. In this case there are two big problems with emissions restrictions as a policy. We cannot decide what global temperature is optimal, and the policy instrument of emissions restriction is costly, imprecise, and risky.

    2) Your private confidence that environmentalists would agree to deliberate CO2 injection to stave off a “natural” ice age is not credible. They would object that we don’t know enough about the natural course of the climate or the impact of extra CO2 on temperature to justify such a hubristic move. In this case, they would be right.

    3) There is not now, nor will there ever be, substantive international agreement on global climate. Existing “agreements” have primarily been PR exercises with no real effort at enforcement. Everyone who is informed knows that even if Great Britain, say, cut its emissions to zero there would be no significant impact on world climate given the expected trajectories of China and India.

    Nor has the question of the optimal temperature been explicitly broached. (The gains to Russia and Canada, and possible the US, from moderate to severe global warming are rarely mentioned.) I have not seen anyone willing to admit that they’d rather hundreds or thousands of people freeze to death in order to put the thermostat where they want it.

    Instead we get “do something” plans that are more obeisance to the gods of “concern” than they are serious attempts to solve the problem. We even have places like Germany that have ruled out nuclear power completely, yet profess concern about global warming. It’s ludicrous. What we have is plenty of posturing and hat-tipping to climate change, along with some businesses engaged in rent-seeking. What we do not have is an international consensus on the ideal global temperature and a commitment to reach it. Any attempt to create such a consensus will make political problems like the Middle East appear to be child’s play.

    4) I meant “naturally stable” when I wrote it. I was giving the CO2 restrictionists the benefit of the doubt that if we pesky humans would stop our activities the climate would be stable. (In truth, I am not sure that that is the case. There seems to be paleoclimatological evidence that the Earth’s climate moves around a lot, sometimes rather quickly, without any human intervention.)

    Your claim that ecosystems are more stable without human intervention is wrong. Modern ecology (e.g. Daniel Botkin’s work) is pretty conclusive that continual external shocks and internal instabilities are standard for “natural” ecosystems. Many supposedly “natural” and stable ecosystems turned out on close examination to be artifacts of human activity (e.g. Indians setting fires deliberately to clear underbrush in our forests).

    Your use of the term “damaged’ to refer to human-affected ecosystems is not a scientific term but a value judgment that is not only contestable but probably wrong if one’s values are human-centered rather than “biocentric.” Agriculture “damaged” the preexisting ecosystems. Yet the standard of living and the population have both grown with such “damage.” (The mention of “business” is a non-sequiter in this context–certainly Soviet-style systems that made business illegal showed remarkably poor environmental performance. )

    5) CO2 restriction is NOT adaptation to climate change–it is an attempt to prevent climate change. Bringing an umbrella if it’s about to rain is adaptation to the weather. Seeding clouds to stop the rain from falling on you is controlling the weather. Words completely lose their meaning if we allow this sort of distinction to be blurred.

    6) The general unwillingness among the “concerned” to proceed with research on cheap geoengineering solutions bespeaks the lack of seriousness I mentioned above. These measures should be looked into first rather than last, given the advantages I mentioned in my previous comment. Proposing to expend hundreds of billions of dollars to solve a problem instead of spending tens of millions of dollars to find out if one can fix it with more tens of millions is irrational IF one actually is trying to solve a policy problem.


  6. […] — I am in the middle of an ever-growing post to respond to Steven Postrel’s comments on this post, and I just can’t get it done before red wine and rib steak have their way with me tonight. […]


  7. […] the comments thread to the second of my provocations in this direction, Dr. Postrel responded with a courteous and thoughtful defense […]


  8. […] night, I posted my much too-long and still incomplete response to Dr. Postrel’s comments further down this blog — but I also pinged my internet-friend Eric Rosten, to see if he wanted to have a […]


  9. […] Eric. To what he said I’d add just one point, something that Steven Postrel failed to grasp in the provocation that got this whole exchange of posts […]


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