Archive for January, 2011

Dunning and Kruger on Republicans’ and Democrats’ Understanding of and Concern about Global Warming

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

I came across this chart, which originally appeared in the journal Climatic Change (Education, politics and opinions about climate change evidence for interaction effects), in a blog post by Julia Hargreaves (Picture of the day). I offer it here mainly because I know it will amuse Barb Tomlinson:

Hertsgaard on Sims on Seattle’s Response to Climate Change

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

As someone who’s concerned about climate change and interested in local governments’ response to same, I really liked this article by Mark Hertsgaard: Why Seattle will stay dry when your city floods. It talks about the efforts of Ron Sims, former chief executive of King County, Washington, to incorporate climate science into decision-making surrounding Seattle’s water infrastructure.

One of Sims’ ideas was to make climate change central to the mission of every department in county government. “Ron is always telling us, ‘Ask the climate question,'” said Jim Lopez, Sims’ deputy chief of staff. “That means: Check the science, determine what conditions we’ll face in 2050, then work backwards to figure out what we need to do now to prepare for those conditions.”


Saturday, January 29th, 2011

I somehow missed this when it was a meme a couple of years ago, then noticed it in a friend’s Facebook stream tonight:

Cute. And immediately suspect, so I googled a bit, and came up with more detail at the Megawoosh site, which made it both more and less believable. So, of course, Snopes has the answer.

Oh, duh: Obviously, I’ve been remiss in my Mythbusters consumption:

The Religiosity Gene

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

Robert Rowthorn, a Cambridge economist, constructed a mathematical model to see what would happen if a “religiosity gene” — a gene that predisposes people toward being religious — existed. The result looks enough like the real world’s manifestation of religiosity to make me think there might be something there. Anyway: Model predicts ‘religiosity gene’ will dominate society.

Jon and Stephen on Sarah and Sean

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Jon Stewart on the Palin “interview” by Sean Hannity:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Petty Woman
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Stephen Colbert on the same:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Mika Brzezinski Experiences Palin Fatigue
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Palin “Interviewed” by Hannity

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

In the interest of granting Sarah Palin equal time (to demonstrate her putzitude):

But it’s not just her; this isn’t about her.

It’s also about Sean Hannity. He’s a putz, too.

Tucson Shootings + Projection + Epistemic Closure = Reality Fail

Monday, January 17th, 2011

Gregory Rodriguez, writing in the LA Times op-ed section today: Politics’ dark passions.

In the 1960s, Swiss psychiatrist Marie-Louise von Franz theorized that rather than face their defects as individuals, citizens or supporters of a particular cause, people project their worst flaws onto their political opponents. When a congressman yells “You lie” at the president, maybe hes revealing his own failings. “Political agitation in all countries,” Von Franz wrote, “is full of such projections, just as much as the backyard gossip of little groups and individuals.”

I’ve definitely noticed that tendency to project one’s own failings onto one’s political opponents. When combined with the tragic events in Tucson and an epistemically closed conservative-media echo chamber, the result is really kind of shocking.

Take this opinion piece by Charles M. Blow from the NYT: The Tucson Witch Hunt.

Immediately after the news broke, the air became thick with conjecture, speculation and innuendo. There was a giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left. The prophecy had been fulfilled: “words have consequences.” And now, the right’s rhetorical chickens had finally come home to roost.

The dots were too close and the temptation to connect them too strong. The target was a Democratic congresswoman. There was the map of her district in the cross hairs. There were her own prescient worries about overheated rhetoric.

Within hours of the shooting, there was a full-fledged witch hunt to link the shooter to the right.

“I saw Goody Proctor with the devil! Oh, I mean Jared Lee Loughner! Yes him. With the devil!”

The only problem is that there was no evidence then, and even now, that overheated rhetoric from the right had anything to do with the shooting.

Except that the “giddy, almost punch-drunk excitement on the left” didn’t actually happen. Believe me; I pay attention to left-leaning chatter. And at least in terms of reasonably high-profile voices, there was nothing even remotely resembling a “full-fledged witch hunt to link the shooter to the right.” There were some irresponsible attempts to link the shooter to a particular political persuasion, but they were attempts by people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) to raise the possibility of links between Loughner and the left.

As described in an item at by Brian Beutler at TPM (How Glenn Beck And Fox News Successfully Painted AZ Shooter As Hitler, Marx Devotee), here’s Beck, speaking on his Fox News show the night of the shootings:

This kid thinks the Mars rover, the landing, was faked. He thinks George W. Bush was behind 9/11. He believes in big government solution. His favorite books include ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Mein Kampf’…. I could tell you right now this guy is a textbook study of everybody I’ve warned against. But I’m not going to do that.

Here’s Hannity a few hours later:

On YouTube, Loughner’s profile listed Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and Adolf Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ among his favorite books.

Here’s Sen. Alexander, the day after the shooting:

What we know about this individual, for example, is that he was reading Karl Marx, and reading Hitler, and burning the American flag. That’s not the profile of a typical Tea Party member if that’s the inference that’s being made.

I’m not saying that those statements are untrue in their specifics, or even that they’re necessarily beyond the pale in terms of misleading listeners in support of a particular agenda. But where are the equivalent statements from the left offering evidence of specific reasons to think Loughner was a Tea Party adherent? As far as I can tell, no one was actually saying that. On the contrary, all the lefty voices I saw were essentially unanimous in saying two things: 1) there is no reason to think Loughner was motivated by any particular political ideology, and 2) notwithstanding, the killings were still a chilling reminder of the worst-case scenario of violent political rhetoric taken to the extreme.

Steve Benen responded to Blow’s column with this: Where was Charles Blow getting his news?

The great irony of Blow’s column is his emphasis on supporting one’s assumptions with “evidence.” He argued, “[P]otential, possibility and even plausibility are not proof.” Those who hope to “score political points,” Blow added, did so “in the absence of proof.”

The problem, of course, is that Blow is guilty of his own allegations. He sees a “giddy” left, where none existed. He sees “punch-drunk excitement” among liberals on a “witch hunt,” but offers literally nothing by way of support.

Within the tightly contained maelstrom of self-reinforcing opinion represented by right-wing TV, radio, and blogs, any excess on the part of the capitalized “Left” and the evil Obama seems credible, I guess. Witness right-wing blogger Jim Hoft writing in his Gateway Pundit blog: If White House Was Surprised by Applause at Tucson Pep Rally… Why Did They Ask For It On Jumbotron? Hoft saw an image of the Jumbotron at the arena where Wednesday’s memorial event was held, in which closed captioning mentioned “[APPLAUSE]” (as closed-captioning is wont to do when an audience applauds), and misinterpreted it as stage direction from the Obama team (as in, “Okay, everybody. Applaud now!”). More at Media Matters: No, Jim Hoft, The White House Did Not “Ask For” Applause On Jumbotron.

Sigh. Is this really what self-styled “punditry” has come to? Look: Everyone has an opinion. But not all opinions are created equal. When you choose information sources based on a desire to confirm what you already know, rather than a desire to actually learn the truth, you can end up looking really foolish. There’s a lot of that going around lately.

Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Tucson Speech

Sunday, January 16th, 2011

I’m not normally a big talking-heads-news-show guy, but I really liked this discussion:

Bernstein on the Right on the Left on Tucson: Internally Consistent, But Radically Wrong

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

I liked this item from Jonathon Bernstein: Palin, ‘blood libel’ and the old epistemic closure discussion.

I went through every post at National Review Online’s The Corner blog from the first news of the shootings through this morning. That’s a lot of stuff; numerous bloggers post quite a lot of items there, for those of you not familiar with it (and you should be! Read things from all over the place!).

What did I find?

First, I should say, a fair amount of shock, grief for the victims, and celebration of the heroic stories of those who saved lives in Tucson. Two reasonable posts about “tone,” one from Heather Mac Donald and one from Kathryn Jean Lopez and Seth Leibsohn.

But beginning very soon after the shootings, and continuing all week, the major theme has been resistance to what was presented as a systematic effort by liberals and the press to pin the attack on conservatives, and on Sarah Palin in particular. It is not presented as a story about specific politicians or pundits who made poor judgments. Nor is it presented as a reasoned discussion of whether extreme rhetoric can have unintended consequences. No; if you read just The Corner, what you’re left with is the impression that a monolithic, capitalized “Left” has been literally accusing Palin of murder.

Bernstein goes on to quote some really nasty, dishonest snark from old favorites like Jonah Goldberg and Rich Lowry.

He continues:

…my point isn’t so much that The Corner’s point of view is wrong, but that anyone reading just the Corner, or getting their news from such sources, would wind up with a massively distorted sense of what liberals were saying, and what the press was reporting. The conclusions that they would draw from that version of reality might be internally consistent, but would be radically wrong.


John Grant’s Chicken Bones

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

This video makes me think of J.A.Y.S.O.N.

Palin’s ‘Message: I Care’ Video

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Watching Jon Stewart’s opening segment Monday night, I was struck by a powerful sense that here was someone who truly believed what he was saying, who was crafting his own words carefully and thoughtfully in an earnest effort to reach out to the millions he knew would be watching and give them something that would help them in a time of trouble, without (despite his closing quip) really concerning himself too much with what would be good for him personally.

I got an equally powerful sense while watching this next video, but it trended in pretty much the opposite direction:

Sarah Palin: “America’s Enduring Strength” from Sarah Palin on Vimeo.

Maybe it’s because of the contrast between this video and videos in which Palin has actually been required to speak her own thoughts, unscripted, but I can’t watch this without being overwhelmed by the sense that here is someone reading words that others have written for her, striving to inject homey touches and heartfelt emotion that she doesn’t really feel, all in an attempt to manipulate anyone daft enough or emotionally needy enough to support her into taking her side against those big bad meanies who’ve been picking on her.

Ick. Even with the lip gloss and ex-beauty-queen looks, I find that really off-putting. I’d agree that she has a First Amendment right to say whatever ridiculous thing she wants to say. And then I, and others, have an equal right to say what we think in response. And my response in this case is: Wow. What a putz.

Jon Stewart’s Monday-night Comments

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

I know he likes to disclaim the role, but the reality is that Jon Stewart has become the closest thing that a large swath of the country (including me) has to a de facto media father figure, along the lines of what news anchors like Walter Cronkite were to an earlier generation. The rise of bubble-head (and shouting-head) media spokesshirts in place of a previous generation of people who actually saw themselves as professionals with a professional code of ethics has left a vacuum, one that has been filled by the guy who famously observed that “I’m just a comedian… I follow puppets making prank phone calls.”

Anyway, here’s the Daily Show’s lead item from Monday night:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
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Beck and Palin Exchange Emails

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Offered without comment (from With E-Mails, Palin and Beck Discuss the Arizona Shootings):

“Sarah, as you know, peace is always the answer,” said Mr. Beck, reading from an e-mail he sent her. “I know you are feeling the same heat, if not much more on this. I want you to know you have my support. But please look into protection for your family. An attempt on you could bring the republic down.”

Metacognition about the Unmetacognitionable

Monday, January 10th, 2011

I don’t have much to add to the chatter about the shooting in Tucson, but you all might as well have a thread in which to beat each other up about it. In the meantime, here are a few things that caught my eye:

The LA Times’ editorial writers were not impressed with the nature of online discourse surrounding the incident: Shooting from the lip in reaction to Gabrielle Giffords tragedy.

Free speech is one of this page’s most fundamental values; we wouldn’t suggest for a minute that it should be curtailed for fear of its consequences. But we agree with Clinton that people should assume responsibility for what they say, and we are both ashamed and embarrassed at the unreasoned and intemperate commentary we read Saturday.

I thought it was interesting to see Phil Plait go down the metacognition route, pointing out that while Sarah Palin’s crosshair graphic and “reload” rhetoric might have been a contributing factor in the shooter’s derangement, they also just as easily might not have been: The immediate aftermath of tragedy.

The shooting and the rhetoric are, for now, related but separate issues. Connections may come later, or they may not. Certainly, I would very much like to see the hateful speech gone from politics, and perhaps, if any good will come of this awful event, a spotlight will be focused on that issue. I just watched a short segment on CNN where they discussed this very topic, and I was surprised to see them being careful and saying the rhetoric may not be connected to the shooting, but also careful to say that it’s past time we do discuss the tone of politics these days. Perhaps there’s something to be hopeful for yet.

I suppose my point in all this is that it’s completely understandable that people want to vent and point fingers after a horrible event like this. The temptation for me is great as well, especially given my own predisposition against some of the people involved in the discussion. But we have to be very careful when evidence is scanty, because it’s all too easy to fill in the gaps with whatever our biases want.

And that is why we must be even more vigilant, even more ready to use critical thinking in the wake of tragedy. It’s OK to grieve, it’s OK to be horrified, and it’s OK to be angry. I’m angry, damn angry. But we cannot let that impair our judgment. It is times like these that we are most likely to rush in, to make snap judgments, and to make mistakes. And in a situation as serious as this, that is the thing we can least afford.

We could certainly use more Phil Plait-style skepticism. But I’m not holding my breath. Faced with the circumstances, people who have been warning that right wing hate radio and the tea party set’s violent rhetoric were going to lead to things like this are going to be perversely happy to use this as a stick to beat on their opponents. And for Sarah Palin, who pretty much exemplifies “act first in the brazen self-assurance that you’re always right and the other guy is always wrong, and don’t think too much about the possible consequences until later,” I think she’s got a certain amount of “I told you so” coming. I’m sure she’ll come through it with her ego intact, though. That’s kind of her superpower.

Finally, I liked Barb Tomlinson’s comments (and yes, shcb, I still think you’re too smart to date her): Small world extends to space.

My impression at the time was that people with shaved heads look very professional in zero gravity. But I wondered if he has to wear his glasses frames especially tight to keep them from drifting off his head. I still wonder these things, but now I also wonder how he deals with doing his job in space with the emotional distraction of having his sister-in-law targeted by a gunman with a whole slew of her friends taken out at the same time. Once again I’ve gone all hyper-emotional over something that has nothing to do with me. I can’t help crying for this engineer in space.

I never really know what I’m going to get when I read Spasms of Accommodation, except I always know I’m going to get the honest thoughts of an engaged, intelligent, and yes, slightly off-center individual. At moments like these, I find that comforting.

O’Reilly: Athiest Billboards Are Insulting

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Bill O’Reilly on how athiest billboards are an insult to believers. Also, he believes in God because of the tides. Courtesy of NorthernLight, who posted it in the comments to Climate roulette:

Goodstein on the American Clean Energy Party

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Eban Goodstein, director of the Bard Center for Environmental Policy, has a plan for building a political movement around climate change. Given my own recent realization that the only way this issue is going to be addressed effectively is if it is transformed from a partisan wedge issue into a consensus view that is shared by both major parties, I definitely sat up and took notice when I read the following passage in New year, new idea for climate: the American Clean Energy party.

How would ACE work? Simply. Run ACE-endorsed candidates in Democratic and Republican congressional and U.S. Senate primary elections. Most ACE races would be in swing districts — challenging especially dirty energy Democrats in primaries, but also creating space for a clean energy Republican voice.

ACE would be a “single focus” party, endorsing only candidates who pledged to run and govern as “moderate” D’s or R’s (as defined by their district or state) in all areas excepting one. For economic revitalization, jobs, national security, rural development, energy independence, clean air for our kids, climate stabilization, we need a revolution: clean energy!

Why moderate elsewhere? Because clean energy is the defining issue of our time. On all other issues there is time to debate, and room to compromise. But on energy, time has run out. Addiction to fossil fuels is strangling our economy, and impoverishing the planet, and we have only a few short years to act before the window for action will close, forever.

Sign me up.

The Implacable Croupier (aka Climate Roulette)

Monday, January 3rd, 2011

Flickr image by John Wardell (Netinho)

I created this game to help me understand why different people think the way they do about climate change. The game is based on an imaginary scenario with four variables and one choice. By supplying values for the variables and then indicating your choice, you can help me better understand your thinking about climate change.

Step One: The Imaginary Scenario

You are in a casino facing a roulette wheel. On the far side of the wheel stands a croupier. The roulette wheel contains 100 slots. Some of them are red; the rest are black. In a moment you’ll get to choose how many red slots there are. This is Variable 1.

You hold a wad of money. In a moment you’ll get to decide how much money is in the wad. This is Variable 2.

You must bet the entire wad on one spin of the wheel, either on red or black. There are four possible outcomes. From best to worst, they are:

Outcome I: You bet on black, and the ball lands on black. You win. The croupier hands you back your money, and you walk out of the casino.

Outcome II: You bet on red, but the ball lands on black. You lose. The croupier collects your money, but you still get to walk out of the casino.

Outcome III: You bet on red, and the ball lands on red. You win, but you don’t get your money back. Instead, the croupier exchanges your money for a number of blank bullets, which you get to place in the slots of the roulette wheel, one bullet per slot. In a moment we’ll talk about how many blank bullets you get to place. This is Variable 3.

When you have finished placing the blanks into the slots of the roulette wheel, the croupier opens a box of live ammunition and places one bullet in each of the remaining slots. He spins the wheel again, removes either a blank or a real bullet from the slot in which the ball lands, loads the round in a gun, aims at some part of your body, and fires. We’ll talk about where he aims in a minute. This is the final variable, Variable 4.

Assuming you are able to, you walk out of the casino.

Outcome IV: You bet on black, but the ball lands on red. You lose. The croupier collects your money. He then proceeds as he did in Scenario III, except you lose the chance to try to get him to use a blank. Instead, he simply takes the gun, loads a real bullet, aims, and fires. He aims at the same place he would have aimed at in Scenario III.

Assuming you are able to, you walk out of the casino.

That’s the scenario. To play the game, you imagine yourself in that scenario, then say which color you would bet on: red or black.

Step Two: Choosing Values for the Variables

Before you can make your decision, you need to choose values for the four variables so that the imaginary scenario reflects your views about climate change. In order for you to do that, I need to explain what the different parts of the scenario represent.

As you may already be aware, there is a group of people who believe all of the following things:

  • The earth is warming.
  • Human activities (like fossil fuel use) are the main cause of that warming.
  • Bad things will happen if we don’t take action to slow or stop that warming.
  • Our actions need to be quick and dramatic, because beyond a certain point amplifying feedbacks may kick in, leading to runaway warming that can’t be stopped no matter what we do.

For easy reference, I’m going to call the people who believe those four things “climate hawks”.

Returning to the imaginary scenario:

You represent human society.

Your bet (red or black) represents whether or not society takes the actions the climate hawks are calling for. A red bet means society takes those actions. A black bet means it does not.

If the roulette wheel lands on black it means that the climate hawks will eventually turn out to be wrong about at least one of the four things they believe.

If the wheel lands on red it means the climate hawks will eventually turn out to be right about all four things.

Since there are 100 slots on the wheel, the number of red slots (Variable 1) can be used to represent the percentage chance that the climate hawks are right about all four things. That is, if you believe there is a 25% chance that the climate hawks are right, you should pick 25 as the value for Variable 1, so there are 25 red slots on the wheel and 75 black slots. If you believe there is a 75% chance they are right, you should pick 75, so there are 75 red slots on the wheel and 25 black slots. I’m not trying to push you in any particular direction. I just want to know what you think. If you are sure that the climate hawks are wrong (or right), you’re free to choose 0 (or 100) for the number of red slots. It’s up to you.

The amount of money in the wad (Variable 2) represents the cost to society of investing in the sorts of actions the climate hawks are calling for, as opposed to investing in whatever else society might choose to invest in. Somewhat arbitrarily, I’ve picked $100,000 (roughly twice the average annual household income in the US) as the maximum number for the imaginary scenario. So, pick a number between 0 and $100,000 for this variable. The idea here is that you are choosing a number that “feels” right to you, in the sense that the pain that an individual head of household would feel if he or she lost that money in a single spin at the roulette wheel would be roughly comparable to the pain that society would feel if we invested in action on climate change, only to find out that that action was not necessary.

The number of blank bullets that you get to place on the wheel if you bet on red, and the ball lands on red (Variable 3), represents the percentage reduction in the chance of catastrophe if the hawks are right, and we do take their recommended actions. That is, it’s your best guess as to the chance that the hawks’ recommended actions will actually work to prevent catastrophe, should the hawks turn out to be right in their four beliefs. If you think the hawks’ recommended actions have a 25% chance of averting catastrophe in that scenario, you should choose 25 for this variable. If you think those actions have a 75% chance of averting catastrophe, you should choose 75. And so on.

The point at which the croupier aims his gun (Variable 4) should reflect your best guess as to the actual negative consequences society will suffer if the climate hawks are correct in their four beliefs, and we don’t succeed in averting those consequences. For this variable I’ve somewhat arbitrarily picked the following aiming points, reflecting different degrees of likely harm:

  • The croupier aims just to one side of your head, so that the bullet whistles past your ear. You are scared, but not injured. In the real world, this might mean you believe that even if the climate hawks are right about the four beliefs listed above, some other factor will make it so that the actual consequences we suffer from climate change will turn out to be negligible.
  • He aims at your foot. You are injured, and may suffer some longterm negative consequences, but probably not very extensive ones. In the real world, there might be some sort of ongoing negative effects, but not very extensive ones: Some moderate economic impacts, some sea level rise, and so on, but nothing too dramatic.
  • He aims at your thigh. You are injured, perhaps seriously so, but with a decent chance of at least partial recovery. In the real world, this might be some dramatic negative consequences — drought, flooding, famine, displaced populations — but there would be a decent chance that it would only span a relatively limited area, and/or for a relatively limited period of time.
  • He aims at your torso. You are badly injured, with significant risk of longterm consequences or death, but with some possibility of eventual recovery of at least some degree. In the real world, this might be dramatic, catastrophic consequences over an extensive area and/or an extensive span of time, though with some possibility of eventual recovery.
  • He aims at your head. You are severely injured, and probably killed. In real-world terms, this would be a major climate catastrophe, characterized by famine, war, and probably a general societal collapse, with severe negative consequences continuing over most of the world for a span of centuries or longer.

Step Three: Place Your Bet!

Whew. We’re ready to play the game. Take the values you picked for the four variables, plug them into the scenario, and then imagine yourself facing that scenario.

Now answer this question: Which would you bet on, red or black?

Please put the values you chose for the variables, and the bet you chose to make, in the comments. Thanks!