Religion May Become Extinct, Experts

In 1850 in the Netherlands nearly everybody was a Christian. A century later, three out of four said they still were. But if you believe mathematicians Daniel Abrams and Haley Yaple and physicist Richard Wiener, in just one more century, by 2050, only one in four souls in Ned’s Land will claim to be affiliated with that once great religion.

This diminution isn’t just in the Netherlands, but in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, New Zealand, and Switzerland too. In all these places, survey data indicates a falling away. (Or, at least, a claimed falling away, survey data being what it is.)

The BBC reports that “Religion may become extinct” in these countries. The BBC is wrong.

The model is simple and only requires that there be at least one person who is unaffiliated. We also need for that fellow to have an affiliated friend ready to be converted. The affiliated soul must look at his pal and say, “It is to my utility that I switch from belief to unbelief.” That perceived “utility” is a measure of strength of attraction the affiliated soul has to his unaffiliated friend’s way of life.

The models assumes that “the attractiveness of a group increases with the number of members” and, as such, “attractiveness also increases with the perceived utility” of the unaffiliated group. These are all plausible assumptions: few like to be the lone man out, and most are joiners. When joiners see that more act a certain way, the stronger is the joiners’ compulsion to act similarly.

To demonstrate plausibility, one unaffiliated commenter to the BBC article says, “About time. Religion has always been nonsense. What a con on the human race.” The ignorance of that comment is not of interest; but the fact that it was said and its militancy is. It is just the sort of comment that will increase the perceived utility of affiliated sou to become unaffiliated.

The model is simple:

     dx/dt = c x (1 – x) (2 u – 1)

where x is the fraction of unaffiliated folk, c is a constant (about 0.2 they say), u (about 0.65) the utility, and t is time. Savvy readers will recognize a logistic growth function (homework: solve the differential equation). As such, given these constants and starting with an x0 > 0, then this equation will inexorably climb to xT = 1 at some time T (actually, almost 1). Hence the BBC’s mistaken prediction that religion will die out. A picture of model fits for four countries is shown; they are reasonable. Unaffiliated with Christianity model

Once all people are unaffiliated (at T), then this model says they will remain so for all time. This is a flaw, or at least a misapplication of the model. Because, of course, the model can be turned around and used to predict the growth of affiliated religious souls. Before there was Jesus there was Thor. Once upon a time, all believed in alternatives to Christianity, yet nearly all people (in Western nations) converted to that religion. In other words, if we start the model at x0 = 0, it will stay at xt = 0 for all t. Thus, this model must remain silent on how new groups are created.

The authors admit that the utility (u) might not be constant and could be a function of time; and they further investigate cliques of humanity such that all belong to one clique or another. The expanded model, however, paints the same picture: the unaffiliated win in the end.

But here is a flaw. The model is dichotomous when, of course, people have many belief systems vying for their attention. Because of the countries where the data arose, “affiliated” can only mean “Christian,” and, when asked, most would answer whether they actively practiced Christianity (e.g., by attending church).

It is true that many main-line Christian churches are losing members, and so the model, in the short term only, does a reasonable job of explaining (and forecasting) this falling off. But it is not true that the model predicts an increase in atheism or other irreligious behavior. Not being Christian does not mean being irreligious.

Neither does telling a pollster that you are an atheist mean you are not religious; it often, to Westerners, merely means “not Christian.” For example, many so-called atheists conspicuously hump yoga mats around city streets on their way to places like Aha Yoga in San Francisco. A place of, so their brochure assures, “spiritual impact” where you can “Calm your soul,” “Clear your mind,” and “to learn how to feel authentically.” That, my unaffiliated friend, is religion.

Thanks to reader Niccolo Machiavelli for bringing this article to our attention.

Do The Rich Pay Their Fair Share?

The answer depends on which country you live. In the United States, the rich not only pay their “fair” share, they pay more. Even stronger, wealthy American citizens pay more than the wealthy in any other country. The place to be, if you are rich and want to sock it away unimpeded by the tax man, is Poland.

Scott Hodge, at the Tax Foundation, put together testimony to the United States Senate’s Budget Committee, which featured a table from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (HT HotAir). This table attempts to show just how much the rich pay in taxes as a share of their wealth in each of 30 developed countries.

I say “attempts” because the data, which is “based on OECD income distribution questionnaire,” must have some amount of error to it. For one, this is data at the household and not individual level (it is easier to mislead with the former statistics). However, the general trend is probably correct (assuming the representatives of each country filling out the forms were not overtly lying, exaggerating, or otherwise dissembling).

Hodge put the data (from 2008) in tabular form, but it works better as a graphic:

Share of taxes the rich pay

The horizontal axis is the percent share the richest 10% in each country pay in taxes. The vertical axis is the percent “share of all market income earned by that group”: it is an estimate of how much the top 10% is really worth. It is obviously imperfect; but the hope is that it is roughly, “on average”, correct.

Now, if we define fair as the top 10% paying the same as their true worth, than the heavy dark line indicates fairness. For example, in the USA the top 10% pay 45.1% of all taxes, but their net worth (or market share) is just 33.5%. If taxes were fair (via this definition), the top 10% would only pay 33.5%.

The rich in Switzerland, Iceland, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Austria and Germany pay their fair share. I mean, they are close to the dark line. The rich in Poland pay less than their fair share.

There are three dotted lines labeled 10%, 20%, and 30%. Countries falling near these lines pay that much more than their fair share. For example, the rich in France pay 10% more than their fair share. The rich in America pay more than the rich in any other country. Here, they pay 35% more than their fair share.

Besides measurement error, a natural criticism is that the influence/benefit value of money is not linear. That is, it is possible to argue that a household that has a share of wealth of $1 million is more than 10 times more influential/has higher benefits than a household with a share of wealth of $100 thousand. Since the developed countries tend to lie on line different than the “fair” line, it appears most governments make an argument similar to this.

But even if this is true—even if the rich are better off than their share of taxes indicate—it is still true that rich citizens of the United States pay more than rich citizens anywhere else. I repeat: the rich pay more here than anywhere else. And not only more, but much more. This puts the frequent calls to “Make the rich pay their fair share!” on shaky ground.

Further, the burden is on those who make this cry to define exactly, precisely, definitely what they mean by fair.

Last April 15, we looked at what percent share of taxes the top 1% in America pay (we’ll do the same this year). The graph shows that the rich are steadily paying a larger and larger share of taxes in the USA (the data, from the IRS, goes to 2007).

Share of taxes top 1% pay in the USA

This picture shows the share of taxes the “poor” pay in taxes: it is correspondingly less and less each year. It is the case that—at least for income taxes—the bottom 40%-45% of earners pay nothing.

Share of taxes paid by poor in the USA

One definition of fairness is that everybody who is a citizen of a country (or every household), and who receives the benefits thereof, should pay something, even if that something is a pittance. If we use this definition of fairness, then the tax system in America is not fair.

Association Of Irritated Residents Defeats California Air Resources Board’s Global Warming Plan

There is strange news out of California. A San Francisco Superior Court judge has stayed the California Air Resources Board (ARB) plan to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs). Judge Ernest Goldsmith says that the ARB did not adequately consider public input for the plan. The ARB says it will spend a significant amount of taxpayers’ money to appeal Judge Goldsmith’s decision.

These decisions do not mean what you think they do.

California, in 2006, passed the Global Warming Solutions Act which mandated that the ARB prepare and implement a “Climate Change Scoping Plan” to regulate GHGs. Emission levels by 2020 were supposed to be reduced to 1990 levels (this is difficult, considering levels in 1990 were not directly nor comprehensively measured).

The Association Of Irritated Residents—and other groups like the California Communities Against Toxics, and the Society for Positive Action—did not like the ARB’s Scoping Plan, chiefly because the Association Of Irritated Residents et al. did not find their recommendations in the final version of the Scoping Plan. But the Irritated were also sour that the ARB was “excluding whole sectors of the economy from GHG emissions controls.” (All quotes are from Judge Goldsmith’s decision.)

In other words, these special interest citizens groups sued because they did not feel the ARB was going far enough. They want more regulation, not less.

Part of their complaint alleges—and I want you to follow me closely here—that the ARB was only going to mandate “the minimum amount of reductions required to achieve the goal [of reductions to 1990 levels], not the maximum reductions” possible. The Irritated wanted more than the minimum required reductions: they wanted the “maximum technologically feasible reductions.”

Again, the Irritated want more regulation, not less.

Another matter that irked the Irritated was the ARB was going to exclude companies and individuals in the agricultural sector from direct emissions reductions. The ARB reasoned that “reducing emissions from agriculture is problematic because it is a sector comprised of complex biological systems, diverse source types and a complex life cycle analysis.” Indeed, the “Governor’s Climate Action Team estimated that 82 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture involve biological processes associated with complex agro-ecosystems for which there is a substantial gap in scientific knowledge and existing data.”

Not to fear, though, because the ARB was still planning on zinging these companies and individuals, but through “alternative compliance mechanisms, market-based compliance mechanisms” or by using “potential monetary and nonmonetary incentives.”

“Not good enough!” say the Irritated. “Make ‘em cut like everybody else.” The perpetually Irritated want more regulation, not less.

At this point, if it hadn’t already, it becomes confusing. The Irritated, already irritated that the ARB was not going to directly enforce cuts on the agricultural sector, were again incensed that the ARB’s plan of not-enforcing-cuts “did not provide any evaluation of whether or not its decision not to mandate agricultural emissions reductions would disproportionately impact low-income communities…”

In other words, the Irritated imagined that by not enforcing direct cuts “low-income communities”—and not the agricultural entities themselves—would be “disproportionately impacted.” They do not say how; this belief appears axiomatic.

The Irritated do not want less regulation, they want more.

His Honor Judge Goldsmith agreed with the Irritated and, in effect, ruled that the ARB has to have another go at their Scoping Plan. I hasten to add that Judge Goldsmith’s ruling is based on certain technicalities about procedures, filing rules, and precedent. And the victory wasn’t complete for the Irritated: parts of the case went the ARB’s way. And with the ARB’s appeal and fine-tuning of it new rules, it is far from clear that the Irritated, though they took the day, will the war.

The Irritated have their hands full anyway. According to the site Justia.com, which tracks lawsuits, the Irritated are also suing the Fred Schakel Dairy Farm (over cow farts), the C&R Vanderham Dairy (same reason), Foster Farms (same), the EPA (a number of different reasons), and other groups who violated the Irritated’s sense of environmental righteousness.

Posthuman Exopedagogy: Teachers To Use Wolf Boys, UFOs, Monsters To Boost Learning

What I am about to show you was bound to happen.

ExopedagogyInna Semetsky has reviewed Tyson Lewis and Richard Kahn’s new book, Education Out of Bounds: Reimagining Cultural Studies for a Posthuman Age. Semetsky’s review appears in the non-April 1st edition of Teacher’s College Record1, the organ of Teacher’s College, the branch of Columbia University and training ground for future teachers.

Lewis and Khan (and Semetsky, and by extension many teachers, too) are concerned about something called “anthropocentric pedagogical practice.” As it was applied to a certain feral child, Semetsky says:

The concept of the “monster” as critically and creatively examined by the authors is the major qualifier to designate a precise line of division between what contemporary collective “scientific” consciousness perceives as binary opposites, such as human and nonhuman animals, or normal and abnormal. Still, goes the argument, because a persistent surplus as “a residual stain” (p. 43) of the primal division cannot be incorporated into the stable symbolic order, the “educated” subject of this very order is left outside “zoomorphic imagination” (p. 69) that could have exposed it to the much broader epistemology and a specific grammar of the feral including survival skills or play as a suspension of the ban on the “social scapegoating” (p. 68). [emphasis original]

All of which when boiled down means that in “contrast to anthropocentric education, Lewis and Kahn propose an alternative pedagogy or exopedagogy as a form of posthumanist education,” one that “transgresses boundaries…by means of savage imagination.” The chief benefit of this new approach is that “Exopedagogy escapes measure and all quantitative disciplinary forms associated with prefixed norms thereby problematizing the notions of norm and normal altogether.” Indeed:

The borderline between normal and abnormal, between human and nonhuman becomes blurred. Entering the paradoxical space that opens when the dualism between human versus nonhuman is abolished or at least suspended leads the authors into the “reptoid” territory as a province of the uncanny “UFOther” (p. 73).

Lewis and Khan’s banner is “Resist the lure of the anthropological machine!” (the exclamation point is my addition, an edit I think the authors would welcome). They cite the path-breaking work of David Icke, the man who formulated the above-mentioned “reptoid hypothesis”, specifically as it relates to “the alien conspiracy theory for the purpose of further combating the humanist assumptions of ‘normal’ pedagogy.”

As is by now obvious, “Exopedagogy therefore is always a form of eco-pedagogy and as such transgresses many of the ‘contemporary forms of anthropocentric domination and destruction of complex natureculture assemblages’.”

You musn’t think it’s all fun and games with Lewis and Khan; no, sir. The elbow grease comes out in their discursion contrasting faery with fairy, the latter being “plainly a cultural artifact with the ‘inoculating trace of the faery [as] a utopian promise’ (pp. 103-104) and even faith.”

Understand: this is a brand new utopian vision. And therefore should be—no! must be—embraced. The perfection of The People is no small matter and is not to be taken lightly. “Lewis and Kahn call for a new exo-revolution informed by their project of exopedagogy that would have created a theory/practice nexus, which is missing within the present secular and materialist-oriented capitalist discourse.”

Lewis is an Assistant Professor at Montclair State University. He tells us that “schools—as with society on a larger scale—are predicated on a fundamental logic of exclusion.” This belief has allowed him “to shed new light on forms of institutional racism and classism” and to advocate “logopoiesis” (“For which there ain’t no English word”). Lewis is also author of “Swarm Intelligence: Rethinking the multitude from within the transversal commons” which appears in Culture, Theory, and Critique, 2010, 51(3), 223-238.

Richard Kahn is at Antioch University Los Angeles, and “is the co-founder and director of Ecopedagogy Association International.”

The Association has as its main goals at this time: 1) Achieve the rigorous integration of ecological politics into the discourse and praxis of the field of critical pedagogy; 2) Achieve the development of strategic partnerships between critical social justice, environmental/ecological educators, as well as theorists of these fields, and grassroots activists engaged in struggles related to these issues; 3) Produce a yearly conference at a major university; 4) Publish Green Theory & Praxis: The Journal of Ecopedagogy (http://greentheoryandpraxis.org), with issues in June and December of each year.

Mr Kahn is soliciting reviewers for this journal. He may be contacted at rvkahn@gmail.com. Khan is also notable for coining the word “‘zoöcide,’ a term (rhyming with ‘suicide’) that is related to genocide and ecocide, but which goes beyond those ideas to speak about the manner in which contemporary capitalist society is expunging experiences of ‘zoë,’ a ‘multidimensional and multiplicitous realm of indestructible being’ associated with sacred relationships to nature.”

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1Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 01, 2011 http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16324, Date Accessed: 3/16/2011 9:00:03 PM

Thanks to long-time reader Jim Fedako for bringing this to our attention. In my despair I note that both these gentleman receive regular paychecks, while yours truly does not.

First Things’ Tournament of Novels: Get ‘em While You Can

First Things’ Joe Carter is running an amusing contest pitting great (and not so great) novels against one another, knock-out tournament style. As of this writing, he’s up to Round 3 (Round 2, Round 1). Download the latest standings here. Tournament of Novels

Blog readers vote on the paired comparisons each round, the winning novel progressing. The novel that wins eventually will not necessarily be the best, nor (obviously) will it likely be your favorite. What is fun about this contest is that it highlights a particular form of (statistical) experimental design that is often used to rate preferences when the number of choices is large. In marketing, it goes by the name “paired comparisons” or “choice modeling.”

The initial seeding plays a large part in who or what will win. In this contest, for example, To Kill A Mockingbird was initially pitted against Pride and Prejudice. Most consider these classic works, perhaps either is likely to win the title; yet because they face each other in the first round, only one progresses. Meanwhile, the first volume in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novel, Master and Commander, easily romps past Orson Scott Card’s padded-out Ender’s Game.

The thing to take away is that all tournaments are not fair. And neither is life. In statistics, the tournaments can be made fairer—but never fair—by mixing up the seeding, presenting a different set of initial conditions to each survey respondent. The hope is that by asking enough people, some sort of rough order will emerge. This kind of trick is not always possible: for example, in basketball’s March Madness, and in the playoff structure of professional sports. There just isn’t the time, money, or stamina to design a better system to judge who is truly “the best.”

To the novels! I have no idea how Carter picked his entrants. It couldn’t have been by internet poll, because Ayn Rand’s oeuvre is missing, and The Hobbit is there but not The Lord of the Rings. Some form of list padding is evident: A Prayer for Owen Meany (Irving) and The Road (McCarthy) make appearances. But where is Mark Twain? This highlights another problem with tournament designs: you are stuck with what you have. Criticizing missing entries, or arguing about who scrapped by and made the cut is useless.

What we can chew on are the results, but only because we can run the tournament ourselves. I have done so, and not just in the positive sense—picking winners—but I did so in the negative sense and picked the loser of each round. So at the end, I have the “best” of list and the “worst” of the list, where those two terms are limited to their tournament interpretations. You are invited to do the same.

I disagree with little in the First Round, though I can’t imagine how The Hobbit (Tolikien) won out over One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (Solzhenitsyn), unless it was a contest of bulk. If you haven’t read Solzhenitsyn’s classic, do so. It shows what a good day means to a man living under the glorious restrictions of socialism. I also had A Confederacy of Dunces (Toole) edging out Charlotte’s Web—but both books are best read young.

My vote also differed with Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevsky) over Brideshead Revisited (Waugh), Foundation (Asimov) over Something Wicked This Way Comes (Bradbury), and Quo Vadis (Sienkiewicz) easily winning over The Road.

After this, we’re into the guts of the tournament, round upon round. Some choices are easy—1984 (Orwell) breaks no sweat against A Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller)—but the races tighten considerably by the third round. Moby Dick (Mellville) versus Pride and Prejudice is a close fight, Jane beating Herman at the bell.

At the finish, it’s Pride and Prejudice versus Jane Eyre (Brontë), with Austen taking the laurels. And Ender’s Game (Card) just beat out Infinite Jest (Wallace)—but emphasis on the “just”—for worst novel in the tournament. Card wins because his work did better as a short story (as it was originally published), though I could be talked easily into changing my vote for that self-indulgent darling of graduate students (always suckers for the pseudo profound) David Foster Wallace.

Those are my results. What are yours?

Postscript: Better rush out and grab these novels while you can. Even The New Republic agrees that bookstores are fast disappearing.

My favorite (Master and Commander) is not the winner, but only because it is the first of the twenty-volume series.

E-book Update: Libraries, Notes, Price

The Lady Tasting Tea will continue Sunday; posting anything meaty on the weekend produces low readership.

Libraries

According to Julie Bosman, many publishers are now only renting ebooks to libraries. In the olden days, libraries would buy physical books and keep them forever, or re-purchase them when they became worn, or sell them to raise money.

Now, publishers like HarperCollins (in the modern way, the company removed the space to be cool) have created a model where books can “be checked out only 26 times before they expire” after which the library has to re-”buy” the book. Of course, if the book automatically self destructs, the library never bought it, the library merely rented it. Upon learning of this, one librarian felt “gobsmacked.” As well she might, because (see below) ebook licensing prices are now comparable to physical book prices—and you get to keep real books.

Bosman is the only other person (besides yours truly) who has pointed out that ebooks destroy the used book market. Publishers, now corporations concerned strongly with the next quarterly report, fail to recognize that used books are what creates readers, a.k.a. customers. Ban used books, remove readers. Reading long-form texts will soon be an activity of only the very few.

And what need of a physical library if you don’t even have to go there to retrieve your ebook? Why not just rent the ebook from the publisher for a small fee? Libraries may soon join bookstores in sentences like, “Remember when we…”

Notes

Be careful what you write in the margins of your iPad ebook: Steve Jobs might not like it and have you banned as a counterrevolutionary. Jeff Bezos, traditionally more tolerant of apostasy, might only hand your notes over to our benevolent government.

You were aware, I hope, that the Kindle has a feature which lets you view the marginal highlights other readers have made. And if they let you read these highlights, they must perforce have them stored in the “cloud.” And, to complete our chain, if Amazon (or Apple) is storing these highlights, they must be taking them from your device as you make them. Isn’t that a comforting thought? Now, not only do the all-caring forces that govern us have a way to see which books we buy license, they will know exactly what we thought important in them.

It is still easier to write notes in the margins of a real book; it is more spontaneous and there is greater freedom in how you mark up the text. The corresponding lack of facility with ebooks has historians nervous. As Kevin Redmon relates in the Atlantic, “margins are a trove of insight for scholars and biographers.” And they are fretting that they will disappear; which, of course, they will. Charles Hill relates in Grand Strategy that when Henry Kissenger met that greatest of mass murders Chairman Mao, he noted Mao’s study was filled with thousands of books (all forbidden to his people), many of which were loaded with scrawlings. “If you don’t put your pen in action, it cannot really be considered reading,” said Mao. Which shows that even a madman can say true things.

It wasn’t until recently that the Kindle allowed you to turn off the highlighting of others, a tremendous annoyance, akin to buying a used book filled with yellow-through lines from some semi-literate college freshman. Quoting Redmon: “Inciting [Romanian-American poet Andrei] Codrescu’s ire was the ‘popular highlights’ feature on Kindle: the faint dotted underlining that, as Codrescu put it, ‘will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station.’”

Price

This week M. Anonymous donated to me the book Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Amazon’s price for the physical book is $20.00, while it’s $19.99 for the Kindle. I weighed the convenience of having the book immediately—only possible with the Kindle or with those now defunct places called “bookstores”—against the pleasure of waiting and owning it in physical form. I chose the latter. It’s difficult to be certain of the accounting, but here either Amazon or the publisher or both must be taking less.

Anyway, as I have pointed out before, any book which will be used as research (to include book reviews) is much easier read on real paper. Marginal notes we discussed; switching pages to and fro (e.g. looking up footnotes) just cannot be done easily with an ebook; switching back and forth between books (as I did while writing his post) is too great a burden with ebooks.

Japanese Meltdown

No, not the reactors, the press. Ghouls, most of them. They always wish for the worst. The only class of people (besides Communists and morticians) for whom death not only delights, but offers a chance for personal advancement. The only folk who can speak the word “heartbreak” with a lilt to their voices. Their first thoughts upon hearing of a disaster is how they, and not their colleagues, can get their face in front of a camera.

Narrating the nauseating particulars of mass death is not a horrible duty that must be stomached, but is instead an opportunity. Not one in a hundred while jetting to the calamity would think to interrupt their prayers with a plea “take away this cup from me.” Instead they paraphrase Lenin, “It does not matter if three-fourths of mankind is destroyed: all that counts is that I am there to report it.”

It is true that ignorance is what drives much (there are exceptions) of the reporting on the nuclear reactors. After all, most of these reporters learned their physics from Hollywood movies. Nuclear reactors, when damaged, melt down blow up: that is what they do. And then all but a minuscule minority suffer from reporteritis, an epidemic psychiatric disorder whereby journalists assume they become as knowledgeable and important as the people they talk to.

They invite a nuclear physicist to offer a thirty-second soundbite, and that fraction of fact becomes All There Is To Know. The reporter assimilates the information and then opines sagely upon it; not repeating it word-for-word, but by creating variations on a theme, weaving it into their baseline ignorance.

Of course, in this case we cannot just blame reporters. Our Surgeon General has contributed to the unnecessary panic by starting a run on “radiation pills” on the west coast. She said of the hoarding that it was “definitely appropriate.” (Has the person in this office ever fulfilled a useful purpose?)

An anonymous but highly knowledgeable source gave this lament:

It has gotten to the point where I can barely watch the news. The hysteria driven media consistently endeavors to one-up itself on the terrors of radiation. You know, “significantly increased levels of radiation have been detected…” Of course, they fail to provide a baseline dose rate before the earthquake/accident and then do not say what is the significantly increased dose, so that sane, rational people can actually make comparisons and draw reasonable conclusions. I especially liked one commentator’s lame response. It went something like, “Well, you know…any exposure to radiation… even small increases, are known to not be good for you…”

Just like reporting on global warming, where it is always, just always, “Worse than we thought”, the radiation levels are always, ever always, increasing and increasing. What reporters should be doing is obvious: take as much time as necessary and, using actual experts, give as many facts as possible, even at the very real risk of talking over the heads of most of their audience. Difficult but correct material always trumps simplistic summaries.

A major component of the story, relevant to us, is over-certainty. According the the Nuclear Energy Institute, the reactor damage occurred because of “extraordinary natural forces that were outside the plant’s required design parameters.” In other words, the events that did occur were not foreseen, or were given such a low probability of occurrence that none thought it worth the trouble.

The people who design these plants are, to use the common phrase, rocket scientists. They are exceedingly bright, but they are still human. If these men can make a mistake in estimating risk on what are, after all, simple structures, just how over-confident are we in our understanding of systems as complex as Nature or the interactions between people and nations?

The disclaimer I have to, but should not have to, add is that I do not seek to minimize reporting on the dangers to those who live near the plants. But our choice is not a dichotomy: because we do not minimize does not mean we must maximize.