Saturday, July 26, 2008

So that's why I always liked Batman the best...

...Because he's a libertarian hero.

Unlike Superman, who often seems to waste his immense powers on relatively minor villains, Batman/Bruce Wayne pays attention to the importance of opportunity costs. For example, he goes after the bigwigs of Gotham organized crime, not the smalltime petty thieves. He consistently attacks the most powerful villains he can realistically take on with the resources available to him.

The Batman story is also an interesting quasi-libertarian commentary on the shortcomings of government. Like the Mafia portrayed in The Godfather, the necessity for Batman's sometimes dubious methods arises because of the government's failure to protect people and their property against predation. This point is effectively emphasized in both The Dark Knight and Batman Begins. In that respect, Batman is similar to The Godfather in conveying skepticism about government, its motives, and its ability to effectively fulfill even the core "minimal state" function of protecting the public against violent crime.

In two important respects, Batman's message is actually more libertarian than that of The Godfather. While the latter portrays private protection firms (such as the Mafia) as being basically similar to government in their predatory nature, Batman's crimefighting activities are depicted as being both more noble and more effective than those of the generally incompetent and corrupt Gotham authorities.

This quotation is lifted from the generally excellent Volokh Conspiracy, a legal/political blog with refreshingly libertarian leanings.


Have you ever noticed that Hayek looks a lot like Alfred, Bruce Wayne's butler?

I always figured Alfred must be the brains of the operation. If Hayek is Alfred, there's no doubt.

(If you can't be bothered to figure out anything else about Hayek, look up his analysis of the Calculation Problem that dooms attempts to decide what ought to be produced or what "fair" prices really should be. Despite modern defenses of socialism, I still think that this is the fatal flaw, and also a big reason why anything other than modest social welfare programs go quickly to Hell. Or better yet, the road to Hell is necessarily paved with good intentions coupled with unforseen consequences and inadequate data.)

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Arctic Melting

My Dad and I were discussing whether the North Pole would be ice-free this year. Both of us felt pretty certain of our position, but the farther I looked into it, the more complex the issue became. Dad thought he might have actually seen photos or news footage of an already clear pole. For totally different reasons, I had just looked at satellite photos of the pole.

National Geographic ran this photo in June, alongside a story about an ice-free pole:

This is not the North Pole, it is Spitsbergen (at 78N latitude, it is arctic. But not the pole.) Worse, the photo is listed as undated. It isn't necessarily deliberately misleading, but I was misled by it. And the original story did not have a caption on this photo. So it looked like the "North Pole" was already ice-free.

A NOAA satellite photo from earlier in July shows that there is ice:

The ice is there, but it is thinning, and there are apparently credible predictions that there might be an ice-free pole by 2011-2013 for "the first time in history" (Really? Who was looking until recently?)

These are, however, projections. I do not mean to deride projections, but they do need to be properly discounted. Earlier this year, there were predictions that this year would see less arctic sea ice than last year, if the prevailing trend continued. However, it did not:

On the one hand, the extent of ice is below the 20 year average line. On the other, what is so special about those 20 years, and in any case, the claim that will be falsified or vindicated is whether this year will be a)ice-free and/or b) of lesser extent than last year. I am not nit-picking, but I do want to keep our eyes on the prize. It is great when one can get a clear answer, and all too uncommon, so however things turn out, it is cause for excitement.

Am I 'cherry-picking' data to 'disprove' global warming? No, a thousand times! I just am not going to pretend that every piece of data lines up perfectly, or that this is the first time anyone ever thought of such a horrible thing as an ice-free pole. I think it is inexcusable to tell less than the whole truth when so much is at stake, both environmentally and socially.

Take a look at this New York Times page:

I'm sorry it isn't more legible, but you can see that there was at least some worry about an ice-free North Pole in this story from 1969.

The current concerns, nor those in the mid-60's, are not the only times there was worry about global warming. In the 1930's, just before the Dust Bowl, there was concern, and that concern seemed to be borne out by the drought. Later there was cooling, and while there was no where near the scientific activity or 'consensus', by the 1970's there were worries of an ice age.

Climate is complex. Some of the most touted models of catastrophic warming are derived from tree-ring data which is notoriously bad as temperature proxies. Notorious for being affected by things other than temperature (e.g rainfall, condition of bark). Notorious for being incomplete and poorly archived, and notorious for not being kept up to date. Some dendrochronologists are becoming notorious for not revealing their data or methods properly, which is, and should be, alarming, whether it is nefarious or merely contrary.

The science is being done, and generally by good and competent scientists, I believe. But do not listen to the refrain that "The science is settled". The science is never settled. Newton's laws ruled for centuries before being revised by Einstein. Why should climatology be above reproach?

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Beware of Scientists

In Eisenhower's farewell address, there is a line that has become iconic, a warning of what the technological powerhouse that is the US economy that helped win WWII could become:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

Again and again this phrase is invoked, tarring (with justification aplenty) the defense industry and the business of warcraft.

Another line, mostly forgotten, chills me to my core as a scientist: holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.

Ike hit the nail on the head.

There are great dangers when scientists become activists. One is that activism is far easier, and often more socially rewarding than science, and so becomes an end in itself, pushing the science to the rear, ironically betraying the only real reason anyone would have to listen to a scientist.

Another is that advocacy requires taking a stand in a political framework. Reversing oneself is damned near impossible in this context. Scientists, no matter how hard-headed, or committed to a scientific position they become, are always expected to defer to new data. But politically, any wavering diminishes one's rhetorical and persuasive currency, and must be avoided, whatever the contradictions. This is also deadly to science.

Finally (and by finally, I only mean for the purposes of this post. One can go on and on with reasons why activism poisons science), activism by a scientist implies something utterly illogical in many cases- namely, that knowing what is happening implies that one is competent to judge whether it is good, bad or indifferent, and that once this judgment is made, that the activist has any clue what to do about the situation.

Scientists tend to be fascists, in a limited sense of the term. I know this statement might irk the hell out of many of my friends that strive for liberal political enlightenment and social justice. But many of the good people in science that I know would not think twice about taking away any manner of freedom or choice when they believe that the scientific evidence suggests a best course of action. Some have been bold enough to say, in front of God and everybody, that it is important to know when to favor effectiveness over accuracy, if the cause is urgent and noble.

I think about the eugenics movement. Once the Nazis discredited the idea, it was conveniently forgotten that many of the leading scientific and intellectual lights of the early 20th century were strong advocates for sterilization of 'undesirables', including minorities. They had the data, the models, and the best interests of everyone at heart. And they were being scientific. Who could oppose that?

Science is the best tool we have for understanding stuff. But it is inadequate to the task of deciding what the stuff, or the understanding of it, means.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

My Bro

My brother is willing to make a fool of himself for the good of children. This makes him a hero to me.

I have posted a few things on this site, and plenty elsewhere, that sits me squarely in the agnostic-with-Christian-culture camp. I am not apologizing, nor proselytizing. It is the truth, and I'm not able, by an act of will, to either become a dyed-in-the-wool uber-atheist or a washed-in-the-blood believer. I am what I am. I find Richard Dawkins and the other militant atheists noisome and surprisingly unmoved by what seems to me to be deep human psychology. At the same time, I think a lot of conservative/fundamentalist Christians are scared shitless of science, and support abominations like the Creation Museum and Intelligent Design, much to the weakening of their claim of any intellectual honesty.

My brother is a minister, focusing on elementary school age children, at a fairly large non-denominational Christian church. I doubt we would see eye-to-eye on matters like doctrine or faith. But despite my misgivings about the ontological foundations of religion, as a practical matter, I can appreciate when things do good, rather than evil. And his work falls into decidedly into the realm of good.

He brings the love of God to little kids. I say this without irony; while I might doubt the soundness of the foundational premises of the statement, the fact is that the schema is deeply part of our culture and psychology, and is capable of helping children grow up to be decent and good human beings.

The immediate counter is that he is filling their minds with nonsense for which no evidence exists. But I would disagree, no matter how thoroughly convinced I might become that the empirical basis of Christianity is lacking. Because I know that my brother is steady, and kind, and reasonable, slow to judge, and quick to reach out in friendship, a voice of wisdom at a time children very much need to hear one. Most children will receive some sort of religious training. At my brother's hands, their example is one of hard work, and sacrifice, goodness, and temperance. Not only do I think he is providing a good example, that I hope his young charges will grow up to follow, but I also see him as inoculating them against extreme strains of Christianity later.

I have argued before that the desire to eradicate religion is foolish and quixotic and doomed to utter failure. Since religion is going to exist, I hope for, and support people like "Mr. Dan" (as the children call him) in what he is doing, whether I understand or believe in all of it or not.