Skip to content
August 6, 2008 | 21 Comments

Don’t be so sure

A number of mixed items today, mostly with the theme that Experts are often too sure of themselves.

  • The organization GRASP, among many others, until yesterday warned of the “imminent extinction faced by gorillas” and other primates (not humans). NASA, an organization of experts, has a page called “Gorillas in the Midst of Extinction.” They used sophisticated, powerful, high technology satellites to count gorillas “giving scientists and conservationists” a way to count gorillas. The phrase “scientists and conservationists” must mean there is a difference between the two types of creatures. Anyway, the previously (?) communist magazine New Scientist recently had an article called “Ebola pushes gorillas towards extinction” (in the late 1990s there were several books published warning of the same fate for homo sapiens sapiens).

    And then yesterday came a report by a group that unexpectedly came upon a troop of about 125,000 gorillas in the Congo, which more than doubled the previous estimate of the number of gorillas alive. Jillian Miller, the director of the conservation group Gorilla Organization, shockingly admitted (quoted in today’s New York Post), “I think the lesson for conservationists today is that, yes, the world is full of surprises. There’s a lot of uncharted territory.” I wonder if she’ll still feel the same way during the next round of fund raising.

  • “Bubble fusion” researcher Rusi Taleyarkhan‘s research was burst at Purdue this past week. This is the guy who claimed in 2002 he could induce fusion using the force of collapsing tiny bubbles (the learned word for bursting bubbles is cavitation). The claim was always silly, which is fine, because there are more than enough silly ideas that pass for “research” in academia. The press and others originally bought the idea, however, and surely there will be some people who will always believe, just like there are still some who tout cold fusion. But the claim was too silly for some, who were angered by Taleyarkhan, and they sought to punish him.

    This week’s Science magazine has an article (subscription required) on how Purdue is castigating Taleyarkhan. They suspected he fudged his data, but couldn’t prove it, so like the feds with Al Capone, they got him on a technicality, a move that I hope they are not proud of. Turns out that Taleyarkhan wanted a second author on a paper so that the paper would appear stronger: supposedly, more authors means less likelihood of cheating. So he showed the paper to a graduate student who made changes and recommendations, and then Taleyarkhan put the grad student’s name on the paper. Bingo! Research misconduct! cried the judges. Well, maybe, but if so, then roughly 98.3% of all academics are guilty of the same crime. People often, for a host of reasons, politics, fear, friendship, tit for tat, habit, and on and on, put names of people on papers even though those people had little or nothing to do with the work. Ah well. Poor Taleyarkhan.

  • For fun, we have a list of the Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions from the List Universe. Here’s #2, from Mr Bill Gates, a well known rich person who lives near Seattle: “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” And #8 from Lord Kelvin, who was a mathematician and physicist, and president of the British Royal Society, 1895: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

    Ho ho ho, we say to ourselves when we read these prognostications. How stupid can they be! We experience mirth. But that is exactly the wrong emotion. You might despise Bill Gates, but he is an incredibly bright person, an expert among experts in his field. Kelvin, who you probably haven’t heard of, was one of the smartest people who ever lived (not at the top of the list, to be sure, but ahead of all of us). These, and the other people with quotes on the List Universe page, were masters, yet they made remarkably huge mistakes.

    You must also remember that when these men, superior in perception to their peers, made these predictions, there were not hosts of others saying the opposite. Most people believed the predictions, and with good reason. These experts had often been right before. What we should take away from this list is an increased skepticism, a belief that experts are not nearly right as often as they’d like us to think they are. Doubt, therefore, is the proper emotion.

August 4, 2008 | 28 Comments

Wrong -> Immoral -> Illegal?

Says Paul Krugman, a writer for a local New York paper,

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral.

He means “action” on man-made global warming. We’ll come back to his musing after a moment.

The other day, Krugman wrote an essay featuring Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist, who speculated that the earth was doomed unless something is done “before it’s utterly too late.” By “something” they both meant “elect Barack Obama.” Weitzman wrote a paper with “sophisticated” equations and which assumed climate model output was infallible, said that we humans will “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” Again says Krugman

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

There is something in economics called decision analysis. The idea is simple. Find out how much something will cost if it happens. Then find out the probability of that thing happening. Multiply these two numbers to get the expected cost. If the expected cost of that thing is too high, or higher than any other possibility, it’s best to try to alter or stop the thing from happening.

If you do not know the probability, then you cannot calculate the expected cost. Weitzman calculates there is a “5 percent chance” that global temperatures will rise at least “18 degrees Fahrenheit.” In Weitzman’s paper, he also calculates there is a 1 percent chance that temperature will rise at least 36 degress Fahrenheit. Yes, you read that right. 36 degrees. The expected cost of a 36-degree rise is, of course, enormous, meaning that we should certainly try and stop global warming.

But we are actually confronted with probabilities of two outcomes, not just one. There could be apocalyptic global warming or Wietzman could be wrong. This implies our probabilities are: (1) A 1% chance of truly catastrophic warming, or (2) The economist Weitzman has fooled himself into being too certain by relying on complex formulae with faulty input.

Everything we’ve ever experienced about the accuracy of economists’ predictions, especially in areas in which they have absolutely no expertise, makes most of us believe (2). Thus, (2) is the rational and optimal option.


Krugman, obviously, believes (1). He’s an economist, too, you see, and naturally sides with his brother economist. All of which would be perfectly harmless, even if Krugman did nothing more than write a column explaining Weitzman’s mathematical fantasies. Except for that one little thing that Krugman advocates: painting those who do not agree with him as not just wrong but immoral.

That is to say, not just wrong, but evil. Krugman, limited in imagination as he is, cannot conceive that anybody could possibly disagree with him, nor look at the same data and come to a different conclusion. People that fail to accord with him are not just making a mistake, they are being mischievous.

Krugman is not the first to suffer from this kind of delusion. La Shawn Barber has written an article called Is Climate Change… Racist? He looks at liberal Congressman James Clyburn, who has written a report echoing the old joke: “World Ends Due to Global Warming: Poor Blacks Hardest Hit.” The gist is that those who disagree with the end-time visions risk being called a racist, a frightening term in today’s USA. University of Amsterdam “philosopher” Marc Davidson has even written a peer-reviewed paper in a prominent journal alluding that those who disagree with Weitzman-like claims are no better than slave holders (no, I’m not kidding).

In a society, when something is wrong, it must be corrected. For example, a person who forgets to apply for a certain kind of building permit to repair his fence is punished by having to pay a small fee back to society. Few would claim that the homeowner had acted immorally, however. More heinous crimes are punished more strongly, such as by restricting the liberty of the perpetrator.

A crime is an act which is immoral. Acts which are perceived to be immoral by the ruling class of society are usually made criminal. These actions usually happen over time. For example, being a “racist” has gone down the path of being distasteful, to being immoral, to finally being illegal in certain ways. Disagreeing with newspaper columnists’ perception of climate change is already distasteful—those who disagree are called “deniars” and even, we now see, “racists.” Krugman now wants these people to be seen as immoral.

How much longer, then, before some enlightened journalist or politician calls for disagreement being illegal? For the “good of society”, of course.

UPDATE: Thanks to TokyoTom for the link to the Weitzman paper. You can read TokyoTom’s take Weitzman at this link. And you can read his take take on Jim Manzi`s take on Weitzman/climate policy at this link. Thanks also to Raven’s correction! My original, and stupid, “70” shows what happens when you are in a hurry.

August 1, 2008 | 4 Comments

Effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it

That quote is from the economist Martin Weitzman from Harvard. I said Harvard. So you know he knows what he’s talking about.

Reader Raven suggested we glance at Paul Krugman’s New York Times op-ed piece today where that quote can be found. That’s right, I said the New York Times. So you know they know what they are talking about.

Apparently, Weitzman, who Krugman says, “has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers.” Numbers which I plan on reading after I return from Fitzgerald’s tonight (it’s steak & kidney pie day). Anyway, Economist Weitzman has been “researching” climate models and has discovered that we are doomed.

Which is probably why The Onion had this headline yesterday:

Al Gore Places Infant Son In Rocket To Escape Dying Planet

Gore Al saves his son

We’re not actually doomed because Weitzman/Klugman says that electing Barack Obama will save us. That’s good news, but it does come too late to save Gore’s kid.

Timing is everything!


Dollar bill presidents

Obama bill

You’ll have heard the speech by now. Barack Obama yesterday addressed a large crowd and said that McCain was

Going to try and make you scared of me. [polite applause]

You know, “He’s not patriotic enough.” [polite applause]

“He’s got a funny name.” [polite applause]

You know, “He doesn’t look like all those other presidents on those dollars bills.” [loud, sustained applause, accompanied by hooting and, yes, hollering]

Presidents? Well, never mind that. What’s more interesting is that journalists heard the cheering and knew what it meant, which forced an Obama campaign spokesman to say that

What Barack Obama was talking about was that he didn’t get here after spending decades in Washington.

A complete, bald-faced lie, of course. Washington—George, that is—did not “spend decades in Washington” yet managed to get his mug on a bill. Grant, neither. Nor Andrew Jackson. Lincoln? Ah, well.

Thus, the spokesman said a lie, but not just an ordinary lie, a ridiculously laughable lie. But, given that it came from a “spokesman”, this is still not unusual.

What I want to know is why journalists never actually accuse liars of lying. The “L” word is never heard or seen in the media. Possibly this is because, once you bring out the big gun, it’s hard to put it away. Accuse one politician of lying, and you’d have to, if you were honest, accuse others, perhaps your favorite, too.

The word “liar” is still potent, it still has it’s original meaning and cannot (yet) be used ironically. People still fear this word. Nobody wants to be called one. Because of this fear, euphemisms abound. Politicians don’t lie, they spin. Spokesmen do not lie, the utter words that are at variance with the truth. It depends on what the meaning of is is, and so on.

If you’re a journalist and you call somebody a liar, you had better be prepared for a return of the favor. Before using this devastating word, you best be sure your house is clean. I thus suspect it is a lack of clear consciences that accounts for some the sparsity of the “L” word.

Calling somebody a liar is a hostile act, and it’s hard to remain friends with a person after you do. Journalist of course crave access to politicians, and do much to obtain it. Shouting, in print, liar! will almost certainly lose them the access they had, or lessen the chance that they will gain access to new politicians. Thus, personal ambition accounts for the lack of the word.

What is strange is that journalists desire access to politicians who lie to them since they purported desire is to report the truth.