Thursday, August 30, 2007

How to bring down an airliner.

The best in paranoid bureaucrats and genre fiction authors must be hard at work for the TSA. Remove your belt, remove your shoes, get used to minor indignity, "yes sir," "yes ma'am", little slips of paper saying your (obviously harmless, if one bothers to check the X-ray) bag has been rifled, have become the way of life for travelers. Need to urinate or grab a sandwich while awaiting a connection at the Kansas City airport? Be prepared to do the pockets, belts, shoes, doff-and-don dance; who knows what's been hidden in the urinal!

One thing egregiously overlooked is the contents of our bowels and bladders. Surely an exploding passenger would be ineffective, but what of mixing a bomb in the forward and aft lavatory. Ahmed, Ousman, Hillary, George, Dick, and Barack can all lift a leg in turn, the final flush stirs it up nicely, and down goes an airliner.

Homeland Security Threat Level Orange, anyone?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mitt Romney: None too bright

Campagins for both major parties' Presidential nomination tend always to feature a race to the bottom. The Democrats' is a perennial pandering to labor unions--especially government-employee rent-seeker unions--and other class warriors. The Republicans' is variable but equally tawdry, with two recent topics being "family values" and gay marriage.

This time around the race is to see who can best stick it to illegal aliens, the approximately twelve million American residents here without proper visas, usually breaking the law because the government, distinguishing between skilled and unskilled labor as though we're still in the Economic Stone Age, offers no means to comply.

This race has come with its own code-words and jargon, most of it euphemisms crafted to make peaceful activity sound nefarious: "Anchor babies", "stealing jobs", "our culture", etc. Ron Paul, although he's stayed out of the macho jingoist pissing contest, is not above these in general. On his website he frames amnesty as a "reward for breaking our laws," as though letting someone who is in violation of the law off the hook is the same as giving him a C-note.

Mitt Romney makes this look positively intelligent by portraying amnesty as a proposed solution to the problem. This is either a revelation of idiocy or an insult to the voters' intelligence: the questions of what to do about our obviously flawed immigration policy and whether to give 12 million illegal aliens amnesty (as opposed to rounding them up and deporting them) are separate. Nobody is proposing that by simply regularizing those already here, we will stop the flow.

I'm guessing that thousands of people who'd never let Joe Biden wave his hands and equate union members and the middle class are willingly hoodwinked by the hayseed fallacies of Romney and Paul. If politics were done like academic science, with open minds and respect for reason instead of appeals to the voters' often twisted ideas of reality, we'd be in better shape. Unfortunately we must deal with people as they are and not as we think they ought to be, however, what ever happened to the notion of leadership? We ought to be able to expect Paul and Romney to be above the rubes, not be one with them!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Libertarian Meme Pool

My fiancée and I recently attended an appearance of one of the lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees, an enlightening and altogether worthwhile use of an hour on a Sunday. As is usual, it was followed by what was nominally a question-and-answer session that, we noted, turned out to be more of a statement-and-answer session. I had thought that this discourtesy was reserved to the younger generation, but most of the audience had at least 40 years on us and ranted nonetheless. Aside from my dirty looks and question pre-screening, there should be some way to keep people from taking advantage of the captive audience to say something; I came to hear the speaker, not someone off the street who doesn't have more to offer than the average Joe and can't bother to even organize his thoughts!

Radio callers, too, are tending toward this behavior. Case in point: a caller about 38 minutes into Bryan Caplan's recent appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio decided it OK to give a shout-out for Ron Paul and tell the George Mason economist (and, thanks to his book, rockstar-du-jour), that "central planning doesn't work."

Caplan, of course, isn't advocating economic central planning or even an ironic iron-fisted rule by free-marketeers. Maybe Libertarianism Makes You Stupid: pop libertarianism, of the type that has influenced the nonlibertarian Paul, loads its adherents up with clichés, this one being especially popular. Dick Clark recently replied to a message of mine suggesting he and others would be better served by thinking about the question of animal rights than merely declaring, cart before the horse, that because animals are property no moral imperatives apply, with a request to not "think like a central planner", inadvertently putting me in the same camp as Caplan! I'm flattered.

When in doubt, throw out a cliché. Central planning doesn't work! You own yourself! A is A! All rights are property rights! It's sure to make you feel really good, and give those of us whose thought processes don't consist of re-arranging our bumper stickers a headache. Mix it with the use of a Q and A session as a bully pulpit, and it becomes a migraine!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A few guidelines for would-be climate skeptics.

The first rule of climate skepticism is to, when coming across a new refinement or correction to current climate science, take a deep breath, pour yourself a glass of wine if so inclined, mellow out, and wait.

"Skeptic" carries with it a connotation of prudence, a studied approach to a question, but most of the self-styled anthropogenic global warming (AGW) skeptics have a tendency away from this, towards believing everything they hear, or at least everything that could be naively taken to mean that the climatological consensus is incorrect. There is thus a tendency towards a petulant "Gotcha!"-ism, whereby countless individuals with little technical training, who haven't searched the literature for explanations, and who usually haven't even reasoned quantitatively about their objection, come to believe that they've outwit the dozens of working scientists (paid skeptics!) who've devoted careers to this problem.

To a scientist, even one like myself who specializes in something else, this looks like bad behavior behavior. Coming from economists like Dwight Lee and Jeffrey Clark it could be called unprofessional intellectual misconduct--pure hubris!--to assume that climatologists have simply "ignore[d] what seems to be a warming trend on Mars." But, pace Dawkins, we should not assume the lay denialist (reflexive rejector of the thesis that Man is a significant contributor to global warming) to be wicked.

That's a difficult proposition. Whereas a few generally stick with a calm albeit premature bandwagonism, the norm is venom, perhaps motivated by the crank belief that AGW is a conspiratorial hoax devised as a backdoor route to socialism.

We must remember that both scientific humility and the capacity to be a skeptic regarding technical issues are learned, not innate. Most of the public does not understand quantitative arguments, even more are so confused about science that they can't distinguish good from bad, and treat bumper-sticker flim-flam such as "Mars is warming!" as as solid an argument as anything found in Geophysical Journal. The tendency to translate quantitative uncertainties to categorical ones--to take the basic truth that climatologists are not always 100% correct, that there are error bars, and that they disagree with each other at the margins as evidence that the AGW thesis itself is in doubt--is perhaps instinctual. Some carry with them another misconception about science itself, no doubt picked up in grade school, which causes them to doubt climatology beyond reason climatology simply beacause it is an historical and observational science. "Control group, experimental group, laboratory..." These folks will not be satisfied until an experiment is run on a separate Earth we have on reserve and, in 500 years, one is shown to have warmed. Years of miseducation compound with arrogance to make bringing people to at least make cogent arguments an uphill battle. How can someone who doesn't even understand science be brought to argue scientifically?

I can't answer that one, but for other would-be skeptics, I offer an algorithm of sorts for prudence and responsibility, and that will ultimately help their case if their argument turns out to have merit:

  1. Give a little thought to the nature of your objection, and then state it clearly. For example, "Mars is warming!", if taken to be a prospective argument contra AGW, is a statement that what climatologists call AGW is actually caused by the sun, since solar irradiance and solar activity are what Mars and the Earth have in common. Similarly, if the small error in US climate data uncovered last Friday would falsify AGW or reopen the scientific debate, it would mean that, after revision, the global mean temperature would contradict the models and attribution studies on which the AGW thesis is based.

  2. Check the FAQs. Many of the common arguments contra AGW have been addressed and most do not deserve repetition. Do your part in lowering the noise level by refusing to spread any objection that lacks merit. Informed layman (climate skeptic) Coby Beck has done much of your homework for you by compiling an FAQ entitled "How to talk to a climate skeptic." The IPCC report itself has an associated FAQ document; New Scientist magazine and the Logical Science weblog have also put up high-quality FAQs which reference the technical literature.

    A weblog, Real Climate is maintained by a group of climatologists for the purpose of communicating with the educated public. Searching it with Google is usually a good way to find discussion of climate controversies. Had the angry mob waited six hours last Friday, they'd have found there a definitive argument for why the error uncovered by McIntyre was a molehill, not a mountain.

  3. If the FAQs don't hold an answer, search the literature.
    This is a prerequisite for the next step, anyway, and it's been made ridiculously easy by Google Scholar, which indexes most academic journals. I have found it an invaluable tool in my day-to-day biophysics research.

  4. If the answer cannot be found in the technical literature, write your argument as if to convince an expert in the field. The best way to do this is to prepare an article for submission to a mainstream scientific journal, so that it will pass the BS-check that is peer review.

In short, think like a scientist.

It's been brought to my attention that it's somewhat difficult to be a bona fide lay climate skeptic, as most people don't have access to a university library and can't afford to purchase article after article. There are admittedly few resources for the intellectual self-starter other than the technical literature. Even the Wikipedia article on the Greenhouse Effect doesn't present the underlying physics in anything more than a qualitative fashion. Real Climate is perhaps the best source for the educated layman. but Real Climate, being a weblog, doesn't start from the beginning.

I can certainly lay a lot of blame on the "skeptics" for not doing their homework, for believing conspiracy theories about the scientists, for claiming (contra common sense) that they're statist shills, and for general bad behavior, but climatologists could stamp out a good deal of this if they made a better effort at explaining AGW's peculiar logical structure and its underlying physics to interested, quantiatively competent free marketeers. Reflexive deniers abound, but not all doubters are denialists, even if it appears as though they don't even bother to check their concerns against the literature. All the majority of the public sees are hand-waving, qualitative arguments, most of them coming from journalists and activists, not scientists. They don't necessarily know that there's any deeper to dig!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Why left-wing reactionaries:

One of the benefits of keeping a messy apartment is stumbling on reading material while cleaning up. From "The Tide in The Affairs of Men", Milton and Rose Friedman, Notes from FEE, December 2006:
...Success made residual evils stand out all the more sharply, both encouraging reformers to press for governmental solutions and making the public more sympathetic to their appeals.

Friedman was writing about the "Progressive" tide in the early 20th Century, but this could very well be a partial explanation of why medical treatments that would have been tantamount to magic in our great-grandparents' day are now considered "rights" by many who haven't thought things through.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The latest scam from the reflexive global warming denialists.

Shades of Kent Hovind here: Steven Milloy's (ironically named) is purportedly offering a $100K reward to a person who "proves, in a scientific manner", that the following hypotheses are false.

  1. Manmade emissions of greenhouse gases do not discernibly, significantly and predictably cause increases in global surface and tropospheric temperatures along with associated stratospheric cooling.
  2. The benefits equal or exceed the costs of any increases in global temperature caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions between the present time and the year 2100, when all global social, economic and environmental effects are considered.

If #1 was all that was needed, the winner can be found in the pages of (e.g.) Geophysical Journal. #2 is tricky and largely subjective.

Don't think for a minute that this is an honest offer., Milloy--makes the final call, which means that the objection to any submitted argument doesn't even have to be scientifically valid! Milloy has yet to voice any bona fide and quantitative objections to the prevailing theory, yet persists in denying it, even calling it a scam.

Furthermore, #2 is a weasel clause, especially from someone who thinks that air pollution, even in 1970, was "more of an aesthetic than a public health problem." That's false in itself (consider urban ozone, smog, and pollution related asthma), but it's also equivocal; one can't call (e.g.) acid rain and the associated ecological damage merely "aesthetic." We can expect Milloy to similarly discount ecological damage this time around. Even if not, the 93-year window provides an out; if AGW is a problem for our great-great grandchildren in 2201, it doesn't matter.

It gets better: Data cited must be readily available to the public. Scientific journals, as I've been reminded of late, aren't.

This contest is a scam, and its 14th Rule prohibits the defrauded from suing over it. Presumably, anyone smart enough to understand AGW also has a good nose for BS.

Anarchy, State, and Polyanna

Cato Unbound is seemingly taking a summer vacation from issues of broad interest this month to focus on anarchy, a topic which wouldn't even catch my eye, were it not for ten years of dealing with arrogant, anti-intellectual, exasperatingly doctrinaire, largely Rothbardite pop anarcho-capitalists at the grassroots level in the libertarian movement. The level of discussion at Cato Unbound is sure to be above this; the lead essay, by George Mason public choice economist (and Austrian who publishes in mainstream journals!) Peter Leeson, offers something both new and far distanced from the fantasylands and houses-of-cards of the slouches.

Leeson's thesis is that anarchy--taken here to mean decentralized, minimal, semi-voluntary, and spontaneously organized governments--works better than its detractors would think. The evidence cited comes in two parts, the first being the world's relative lack of "effective governments" until very recent times, the second being the success of spontaneous governmental mechanisms in 18th Century pirate vessels and modern-day Somalia.

The State is still neither omnipresent nor omnipotent; social order depends, as surely as it did in the Middle Ages, on voluntary obedience to the law. That people were able to live their daily lives and conduct their business before the days of police raises the fundamental questions about legitimacy. Why do people obey the law? Out of custom, fear of being caught, or common decency? By Leeson's argument, fear is not the only reason, although in an era when thieves or even debtors were sent to the gallows, it cannot be entirely discounted.

Likewise, the interruptions of warfare aside, the Somalian was and in some regions is able to live his daily life in the absence of a central and powerful state. It must be remembered that while many anarchist theories depend on pre- or non- institutional property and contract rights (and are every bit as stupid as that implies), after any collapse or withering away of the state, the property and contract rights are post-institutional. People carry with them some notion of what property rights are and are not, and what obligations are entailed by contract. It doesn't surprise me one bit that the country is doing better under the makeshift institutions set up to protect against criminals and enforce these customary rights and obligations than it was under Siad Barre's "Scientific Socialism" and kleptocracy. That's not much of an accomplishment. What remains to be seen is whether, pace Nozick, the answer to the inadequacies of Somalia's anarchic regime will be increasing standardization and cooperation between the governing institutions spontaneously created in the wreckage of the state.

Someone less friendly to anarchism than Leeson could take the pirate constitutions as evidence of Man's tendency to form governments in his enlightened self-interest. The pirate governments, as described, were as central as can be; Leeson does not describe an on-board free market in governmental services. Neither separation of powers between captain and quartermaster nor the lack of an outside authority to make sure the government follows its law makes pirate ships anarcho-capitalist, no more than the United States is anarchist because it has a President, Congress, Supreme Court, and no higher power enforcing the Constitution. The questions that come up are, again, about legitimacy. A pirate vessel's charter is easily legitimated because joining pirate society is voluntary. Lysander Spooner would be delighted: "Sign here!" On the ground such things simply do not apply, except to clubs and business partnerships.

The question of what happens when the law must be changed remains. Strict universal consensus is out of the question even on pirate ships. When the law changes, take it or walk the plank. Not even anarchy satisfies the aforementioned doctrinaires' precious "non-initiation of force principle".

Especially tricky for anarchies would be diffuse harms with diffuse sources of harm. It does not seem as though people in an anarcho-capitalist society have any means to get around the prisoners' dilemma and ratify a planet-saving Montreal Protocol or create a new property right out of thin air to correct the externality called anthropogenic global warming. Those who, out of stupidity or spite, deny that they're doing anything harmful would secede, a legitimate move in an anarchy. The harm would persist, with war (between a camp with roughly below and roughly above average IQ?) being the only solution.

It is not sufficient for anarchists to merely show that people will create decentralized institutions to enforce customary rights. It must be shown that

  1. Anarchy would not represent a dimunition of liberty, especially a system in which the poor simply do not have rights, to those living under liberal regimes.
  2. Anarchy can accomodate solutions to environmental problems, including those characterized by diffuse harm, diffuse sources of harm, or both.
  3. Anarchy can accomodate pluralism and dissent.

The way for anarchists to show this is to, step by step, effect change towards a more voluntary social order and decentralized government, in other words, to demonstrate. Leeson attempts to show by example, but it, by his own admission, is unconvincing, as pirate ships are situationally much different than common society, and "better than the old Somalia" doesn't stand for much. At least he's not badgering minarchists and undermining the efforts of people supposedly on the same side. This anarchy of the possible is always welcome.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Bridge collapses are like train wrecks...

Bridge collapses are like train wrecks, in that they provide a prime opportunity for "Objectivists"--the modern-day followers of Ayn Rand's pseudo-philosophical thought--to show their true colors.

How long will it be until someone from the Ayn Rand Institute or Objectivist Center puts out a list of imagined moral errors of those who perished in last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis? I haven't even found anything in the blogosphere. Maybe they've suddenly grown a sense of decency. I'll give it a week.