Archive for May, 2011

Franzen on His Sexy New Blackberry, and His Love of Wild Birds

Monday, May 30th, 2011

From Jonathan Franzen’s recent commencement address at Kenyon College, as summarized in a New York Times op-ed: Technology Provides an Alternative to Love.

A COUPLE of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics.

I was, in short, infatuated with my new device.

The bird part comes later.

McKibben: Don’t Think About Climate Change

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Bill McKibbon’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post: A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never!

USA Today Editorial Board vs. James Inhofe on Climate Change

Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Dale McGowan explains (in an otherwise worthwhile piece that I’m not going to focus on here) how he helped his 9-year-old daughter deal with the fear that resulted from her having heard about Christian radio-show host Harold Camping’s (latest) prediction that the world would end soon:

I looked her in the eye. “When you’re trying to figure out what to believe, a good way to start is to just ask why other people believe it, then decide whether it’s a good reason.”

We can apply this approach to the question of whether human activity is altering the climate, and whether that alteration is dangerous. For example, today USA Today ran an editorial (Our view: America, pick your climate choices) that basically equates climate change deniers with birthers:

Late last week, the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group, the National Research Council arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report called “America’s Climate Choices.” As scientific reports go, its key findings were straightforward and unequivocal: “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.” Among those risks in the USA: more intense and frequent heat waves, threats to coastal communities from rising sea levels, and greater drying of the arid Southwest.

Coincidentally, USA TODAY’s Dan Vergano reported Monday, a statistics journal retracted a federally funded study that had become a touchstone among climate-change deniers. The retraction followed complaints of plagiarism and use of unreliable sources, such as Wikipedia.

Taken together, these developments ought to leave the deniers in the same position as the “birthers,” who continue to challenge President Obama’s American citizenship – a vocal minority that refuses to accept overwhelming evidence.

Nothing much new here (as the editorial points out). But they also did something interesting: They ran an “opposing view” piece by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) arguing the opposite position. See Inhofe’s view: All pain, no gain.

Not too long ago, President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress proudly announced that America would lead the fight against global warming by passing a cap-and-trade bill. But despite overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress in 2009, Democrats barely found the votes to get the proposal through the House, and Senate Democrats never even brought it up for a vote.

The reason is simple. Cap-and-trade is designed to make the energy we use more expensive. Consider President Obama’s Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who said in 2008, “Somehow, we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe.” That’s about $7 to $8 a gallon.

What the Democrats have since learned is that the American public is more skeptical of the science of global warming than at anytime over the past decade. Frank Newport of Gallup stated earlier this year, “Americans’ attitudes toward the environment show a public that over the last two years has become less worried about the threat of global warming, less convinced that its effects are already happening, and more likely to believe that scientists themselves are uncertain about its occurrence.”

I encourage you to read Inhofe’s whole piece. There are some additional arguments in it, mainly that if the US pursues cap-and-trade pricing on carbon it will simply shift carbon emissions to other countries and actually increase those emissions.

So, I put it to you: Just on the basis of these two pieces, which side in the debate is making the stronger argument?

USA Today editorial board: the nation’s pre-eminent scientific advisory group is straightforward and unequivocal in stating that “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by human activities, and poses significant risks to humans and the environment.”

Jim Inhofe: Congress has failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation, despite Democratic majorities, because the electorate is worried about the effect it would have on gas prices. Meanwhile, the American people’s concerns about global warming have diminished over the past decade.

Hm. I wonder which argument should carry more weight as I try to assess whether climate change poses a significant risk? I could listen to the scientists who study climate. Or I could listen to politicians who receive massive campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry, and consumers concerned about the price of gas. I wonder which of those groups has a better take on what’s going to happen with climate?

Galef on the Smartass Curve

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Julia Galef, writing at the Measure of Doubt blog, in Math education: you’re doing it wrong, tells a story about her friend J:

On the entrance exam for his honors math class, several of the problems asked you to fill in the next number in the sequence, such as: 2, 4, 8, 16, _?_. Obviously, whoever wrote the exam wanted you to complete that sequence with “32,” because the pattern they’re thinking of is powers of 2. For n = 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, the formula 2n = 2, 4, 8, 16, 32. But J didn’t write “32.” He wrote “π.”

Hilarity ensues. As a former smartass math geek, I enjoyed the story.

Galactic Empire Times: Obi-Wan Kenobi Is Dead, Vader Says

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

From the Galactic Empire Times: Obi-Wan Kenobi Is Dead, Vader Says.

CORUSCANT – Obi-Wan Kenobi, the mastermind of some of the most devastating attacks on the Galactic Empire and the most hunted man in the galaxy, was killed in a firefight with Imperial forces near Alderaan, Darth Vader announced on Sunday.

The comments are pretty cool, too.

More Good Stuff on Mercier and Sperber’s Argumentative Reasoning Theory

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

You folks in the comments should stop arguing for a minute and check this out. Jonah Lehrer’s latest Wired Science column has more reaction to that very cool recent study by Mercier and Sperber on how confirmation bias can be explained as an evolutionary adaptation to the particular needs of reaching good decisions in a group context: The reason we reason. (With professional basketball content, too!)

It includes a link to an even cooler interview with Hugo Mercier from The argumentative theory: A conversation with Hugo Mercier.

Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves.

And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. And it’s weird, when you think of it, that humans should be endowed with a confirmation bias. If the goal of reasoning were to help us arrive at better beliefs and make better decisions, then there should be no bias. The confirmation bias should really not exist at all. We have a very strong conflict here between the observations of empirical psychologists on the one hand and our assumption about reasoning on the other.

But if you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you’re trying to convince someone, you don’t want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that’s what the confirmation bias helps you do.

The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it’s actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning — but they’re very good at reasoning for arguing. Not only does the argumentative theory explain the bias, it can also give us ideas about how to escape the bad consequences of the confirmation bias.

People mostly have a problem with the confirmation bias when they reason on their own, when no one is there to argue against their point of view. What has been observed is that often times, when people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.

On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution.

See? I knew there was a reason for continuing to engage with shcb. Fulfilling the evolutionary imperative for argumentation since 1996.

Beck and Burg’s Not-Quite-Still Photography

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

I saw this cool item in WebUrbanist today, about photographer Jamie Beck and her videographer partner Kevin Burg’s weird art pieces that consist of still images with just a hint of video. The effect really is quite interesting; you owe it to yourself to click through to see more examples: Moving Pictures: Stunning Photographs Brought to Life.

Mooney on the Hamilton Study on Climate Change Attitudes

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Chris Mooney (who I suspect is working on a new book on this subject, which I can’t wait to read) has another item up today pointing to yet another study that documents the phenomenon that those on the left or right who self-identify as being more knowledgeable about the science of climate change tend to be more, rather than less, polarized in their views. That is, Democrats who see themselves as well-informed on the subject are more likely to acknowledge the actual scientific consensus, while well-informed Republicans are more likely to deny it, than those of either party who say they don’t know as much. See: Climate Change and Well-Informed Denial.

This core finding itself is not new – a 2008 Pew survey also found that Republicans with a college level of education were less likely to accept the science of climate than Republicans who lack such education. Other studies have also underscored this fundamental point. But for precisely that reason, Hamilton’s research kind of puts it in the realm of indisputable political fact. Not only are we polarized over climate change, but our knowledge and sophistication, when combined with our politics, make matters worse.

How could this be? For Hamilton, the explanation lies in the interaction between how we get information (from trusted news and Internet sources, we think, but we’re actually being selective) and our own biases in evaluating it (objectively, we think, but again, we’re actually being selective). “People increasingly choose news sources that match their own views,” Hamilton writes. “Moreover, they tend to selectively absorb information even from this biased flow, fitting it into their pre-existing beliefs.” In other words, we’re twice biased – based on our views and information sources – and moreover, twice biased in different directions.

Osama bin Laden is dead

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

Conspiracy theorists start your engines!

(plus, I can’t wait to see how the right wing spins this as bad for “the young man”)
oh wait, don’t forget the wink ;)