Mad Science/Journalism Experiment

October 10, 2018


In the wake of the new IPCC special report, the NYTimes declared (emphasis added) in its editorial today:

…the world must utterly transform its energy systems in the next decade or risk ecological and social disaster, attention must be paid….

The panel said a mammoth effort is needed, beginning now and carrying through the century, to decarbonize global energy systems. The next 10 years are absolutely crucial: Emissions will have to be on a sharp downward path by 2030 for any hope of success. Greenhouse gases must be cut nearly in half from 2010 levels. Renewable energy sources must increase from about 20 percent of the electricity mix today to as much as 67 percent. The use of coal would need to be phased out, vanishing almost entirely by midcentury.

Okay, so there we have it.  A clear and stunning prediction of doom, the End Times of the Climate Apocalypse are nigh!  2030 is not so far off, and a very large proportion of the readers of this post (all three of you!) are likely to be around then to test the propositions pronounced in the editorial.

My prediction is that in before 2030, if people are still excited about this issue, we will see articles about how new studies have put off the day of reckoning to 2040 or 2050, the standard moving the goalposts routine.  Or, they may declare that the delay of crisis is due to the heroic (unspecified) reductions in GHG accomplished as a result of their indomitable advocacy.  If I am wrong, I won’t be happy!  😦


Cannibalism and the Resurrection

March 6, 2012

Just cannot get enought of this Saint Augustine!  What will I do when I put aside his weighty tome, City of God?  Maybe I’ll go back and read over the parts I only skimmed.  (I estimate that I’ve read about 75% of the 1070 pages in my edition.)

Augustine is thorough, and he’s determined to refute all the arguments he has encountered against his religious views.  It can get pretty detailed.

…So, the knotty question comes up about the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead.  We are talking about the virtuous, saved souls, who are bound for heaven.  What size body will they get on their reawakening?  If they died old, will they get their young body?  What if they lost a limb or two in this vale of tears, our worldly life?  Will it be reconnected to their body?

And this…surely one of Augustine’s weirdest forays into the logic of miracles: What about those people who were victims of cannibals?  And that includes people who were eaten by others who may not have been pagans, e.g. during the travails of the sack of Rome by barbarians – some Christians may have taken this last resort to stay alive.  Will the resurrected victim somehow get a reassembled body, even though his flesh has been consumed and incorporated into that of another?

Yes, we are assured that the saved will be made whole.

Ontological Fallacy

June 28, 2011

I am reading this little book that gives a history of the arguments for the existence of God that have been advanced by theologians and philosophers in Europe.  Naturally, Anselm’s proof, known as the Ontological Proof, is given pride of place.  Wikipedia summarizes it thus:

1) Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
2) I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
3) Therefore, God exists.

Never seemed convincing to me, and a surprising number of churchmen, including Thomas Aquinas, were not swayed by it.  On the other hand, the great atheist, Bertrand Russell,  during his early Hegelian phase, said: “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!”   “God in boots?”  Doesn’t say much for Hegelianism.  The ‘proof’ lingers on, and I hear it thrown about by theistic journalists now and then.

I deal with it this way:  I can get no clear and distinct idea of what God is supposed to be.  It is a fuzzy, flexible, and profoundly unnecessary concept.  (That is, it explains nothing.) Q.E.D. God’s existence is not proven.

I cannot prove that God does not exist, but why trouble oneself with that?  I cannot prove the tooth fairy doesn’t exist.  A concept that makes no sense and cannot be proven is best discarded.

Saint Augustine, Dunning-Kruger, and rules of debate

June 6, 2010

Smite the unworthy!

Those who waste their time with this blog know that I can be argumentative, but I do try to give the other person a chance to explain and defend alternate views.  Anyone who comments on blogs will certainly be aware that this is not the rule.  Venom, flaming, insult, and complete lack of interest in hearing any dissenting views are very common.  Well, it’s a free cyber-world, and if people only want to engage with those they agree with already, that’s their choice.

Since I am interested in the controversy over climate change – anthropogenic? proven? – I visit blogs that take the so-called consensus view, with which I disagree.  Sometimes I comment.  Generally, the response is anything but measured and polite, and a debate at the level of grade-schoolers ensues.  To be fair, the same has happened on blogs that I do generally agree with when I have begged to differ on some particular point.

How to conduct a rational debate with those you disagree with, even fundamentally, has always been a fascinating question for me.  What are the limits?  Reading Saint Augustine’s City of God, commenting on RealClimate, and following up on the Dunning-Kruger Effect [Full Text] has brought this all together!

If you follow the link to RealClimate, a premier pro-AGW blog, moderated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Science (right around the corner from the Seinfeld diner) you can decide for yourself how well or badly I was treated if you have the patience to follow the thread that begins at comment No. 22.  One fellow suggested I was suffering from psychosis, others intimated that I was a nefarious troll, feigning real interest in the discussion, but intending only to sow dissent and distraction at the site.  (Really, they didn’t have to respond to me – are they that easily sidetracked from their great work?)  Many commented that despite their repeating the obvious logical case for AGW over and over, and presenting me with incontrovertible evidence, I remained recalcitrant.

I was reminded of accounts of witch trials and inquisitorial interrogations I have read – the sinner refuses to recant or confess, maintains innocence, despite being presented with indubitable evidence of his guilt.  His stubborness is further evidence of his sinful, heretical nature – burn him!

As in the period of the great religious wars of 17th century Europe, there is an unwillingness to accept that some matters cannot be settled definitively, at least not yet, and that judgement of men and women plays a part.  For the AGW crowd, it’s all settled, the evidence is in, to maintain that one’s judgement of the evidence leaves one unconvinced simply demonstrates that one is:  stupid; ignorant of science; a shill for the oil companies; psychotic; all of the above…OR, a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect!

Ah, now we are getting somewhere!  But before we dive into contemporary academic study of incompetence (I kid you not), let us give an ear to Saint Augustine.  Fine man, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  At least, not people he knewwere fools!  Here is what he says at the opening of Book II, The City of God. [He was refuting pagan authors who laid the blame on Christianity for the recent sack of Rome.]  Anyone who has read AGW denunciations of skeptics, deniers, denialists, and other ‘crackpots’ will have a frisson of déja vu.

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth!  If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure!  In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussions on order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.  But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible.  Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see.  The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with theirs eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of the discussion and talk of we think we must always reply to replies?  For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentions that they refuse to given in even if they do understand.  In fact, as the Bible says, “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly”  You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try and refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they  speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments.

Many of us have had the experience of arguing with someone in thrall to some weird conspiracy theory (men did not land on the moon!) and it is very frustrating.  At some point, you have to give up.  But at what point?  And how do you tell if you are arguing with a person uninterested in reason or someone who just completely disagrees with you?  A certain amount of trust in the good faith of the other is absolutely essential, and a willingness to bend over backwards to try and understand them.  This is rarely present in abundance.

And why bother when the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is handy?  (I’ve been its victim several times, according to some bloggers.)  The simple truth is that those who are incompetent in a field are the least able to judge their own level of expertise.  Moreover, their very incompetence is an obstacle to them realizing how little they know.  (Ignoramuses are famously confident.)

Having a dispute over a complex scientific question?  Your opponent refuses to accept your argument, claiming that your evidence is weak and your logic is full of holes?  DKE to the rescue!  Obviously, your gadfly is one of those who just doesn’t get what science is all about (The argument for AGW is basic physics, duh!) and it’s useless to engage because he hasn’t the mental  tools to  understand how ignorant he is!!  The simplicity, neatness, and unassailable logic of this riposte is simply beautiful!

What do Mssrs. Dunning & Kruger really say?  From the abstract of the article available at the link above (italics mine):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the meta-cognitive ability to realize it…Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

The article is a careful academic exercise in experimental social psychology.  I would be very surprised if the authors would endorse the free-wheeling use of their names to silence opponents in scientific disputes.  They are also careful to point out that self-overestimation of competence can have other sources as well.  Finally, their work was concerned with a rather narrow range of phenomena, for which they were able to develop fairly uncontroversial measures of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Even their measure of competence in humor, yes!, was based on a survey of professional comedians’ assessment of a fixed sample of jokes – surely they have a good idea of what’s funny!

The interesting thing about the misuse of this academic article is that it takes a study that assesses peoples’ self-awareness of competence in uncontroversial areas – logical deduction, grammar, etc. – and applies it to a…controversy!  The whole point of scientific controversy is to arrive at the truth, which will then be, perhaps, uncontroversial.

I did have another reaction to this paper, however.  It struck me as similar to saying, “The problem with poor people is they have no money.”  Sort of obvious.  Incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.  Well, sometimes they do.  And why in heck is it paradoxical that giving people training and tutoring will improve their self-assessment of skill?  I would venture that the notion of competence includes the idea of self-awareness of skill level.  We used to call this wisdom or judgment.

The authors begin their article with the sadly comic story of a man who robbed a bank, thinking he was invisible because he smeared his face with lemon juice.  Obviously, not competent to judge  a lot of things.  They conclude with a cutesy remark:

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Ha, ha.  So funny.  Maybe they suffer from the DKE…Boy, good thing they don’t do stand-up comedy.  These are professors at Cornell University by the way.  What do we learn about anything from this article?  Stuff like this is what makes academic a pejorative term.

Quantitative deep freeze

January 12, 2010

“I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the state of Science, whatever the matter may be.”

William Thomson, created Lord Kelvin for his engineering work on transatlantic communications cables, had firm views on what was and was not scientific knowledge.  He was also interested in global temperature, but not they way we are today.  He put a monumental scare into Charles Darwin, whose ideas he did not accept, by calculating that the earth must be much younger than Darwin had believed it to be.  His conclusions were based on the rate at which the earth would cool from its initial molten state.  Since evolution takes a very long time, and Darwin knew that well, this was a serious blow to Darwin’s theory.  Eventually, Kelvin’s figures were shown to be wrong, and we now believe the earth is billions of years old, plenty for Darwin!

Kelvin also was interested in very low temperatures.  He created the temperature scale, now known as Kelvin, that has as its begining, Absolute Zero (no connection to the vodka) which is the point at which all molecular motion ceases – thermodynamic zero.

All this stuff about metrics and temperature got me thinking about the latest blast on global warming, this time related to a major IPCC scientist who has been quoted as implying that all the climate science of projected warming is wrong.  He writes that the warming in the recent decades, such as it is, is not the result of CO2, but of natural cycles.  The warming due to CO2 is now kicking in, and will continue unabated as long as we burn fossil fuel.  He laments that some journalists have “distorted” his views, describing him as a sort of crypto-denier, and asserts that “if my name was [sic] not Mojib Latif it would be global warming.”  Wow, there’s a believer!  (I guess he doesn’t believe in the subjunctive, but who does?)

I’m sure there have been reports in magazines and news shows that do distort Mr. Latif’s views – that’s to be expected in popular science journalism.  What is odd is that he doesn’t see that his views do contradict some of the AGW orthodoxy.  That is, a lot of people would deny that natural cycles have much, if anything, to do with the purported temperature rise over the last few decades.  They point to a clear “signal” of AGW.  His statements also raise the question of how he is so sure that the real AGW warming will begin soon – isn’t that just his … belief?  I mean, if it hasn’t been happening already, how can he be so sure?  Those computer models?

Finally, he weighs in with a strange observation about the ability of people to reason coherently:

 Nobody would discuss the problem of [Einstein’s theory of] relativity in the media. But because we all experience the weather, we all believe that we can assess the global warming problem.”

Actually, I have seen discussions of relativity in the media, and some of them were admirably clear.  They may be difficult to understand because the theory entails a profound challenge to our “common sense” notions, but that’s another story.  Latif seems to be claiming that only experts such as himself can assess AGW, presumably with the help of their digital crystal balls, but we can all assess the logic of their claims, and his seems rather tortured.

As Kelvin might have asked, let’s just look at the numbers…