Archive for February, 2010

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Ripping “The Ethicist” to Hell

February 25, 2010

Looking for amusement? Read this developing string of responses to Randy Cohen’s infinitely inane column “The Ethicist.”

Carry on.

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New Developments in CES Hack

February 25, 2010

Here’s an update on the centuries-old CES (or Cogito Ergo Sum) hack. For those out of the loop, about 170 years ago, a critical letter written by one of the grandpappys of metaphysics and epistemology, René Descartes, was stolen from the archives of Paris’s Institute de France. It suddenly popped up in the godforsaken state of Pennsylvania. All of this could’ve been settled decades ago with an appropriately-targeted FOIA request, but instead Emerson and his henchmen at Haverford are now scrambling to repair the damage.

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Honest or Broken?

February 24, 2010

Roger will surely be pleased to see that the New Scientist has published an editorial suggesting that “Honesty is the best policy for climate scientists.” Given the language, the editorial could’ve been written by Roger himself.

Honesty, of course, is the best policy. Where Roger likes to offer the pragmatic argument for honesty — and shucks, there sure has been a lot of political crap floating to the surface to demonstrate his point — I tend to emphasize slightly different, non-pragmatic reasons for advocating honesty. Namely, I think we have an obligation not to be dishonest, even if it won’t end up badly for us.

(One issue that this raises, of course, is whether there was ever actually any substantial dishonesty afoot in the IPCC. I don’t want to go there.)

Rather, the editors at New Scientist make some provocative claims about environmentalists.

FOR many environmentalists, all human influence on the planet is bad. Many natural scientists implicitly share this outlook. This is not unscientific, but it can create the impression that greens and environmental scientists are authoritarian tree-huggers who value nature above people. That doesn’t play well with mainstream society, as the apparent backlash against climate science reveals.

I couldn’t agree more, though I disagree with the reasoning. Just as it is not the case that honesty is the best policy because dishonest practices may have negative political outcomes, so too is it not the case that holding the above-outlined position is wrong because it doesn’t play well with mainstream society.

The view that the planet is good, and that human interference is somehow bad, is just a naive environmentalist view. That’s what makes the view problematic. Sure, lots of people hold it, but let’s face it, there are a lot of unreflective environmentalists, just as there are a lot of unreflective anti-environmentalists. That it doesn’t play well is no reason to reject the view. There are better reasons to reject it. What makes the view wrong is its romanticism about nature. I’ll be kicking this theme around quite a bit over the next few months, but I thought I’d point out that the planet can actually be quite hostile. View a few pictures like these to remember that.

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Spindly Man with Annoying Bow Tie Takes on Weather Hack with Annoying Logic

February 23, 2010

Or, climate ain’t weather (and climatology ain’t meteorology) redux

This week our good pal Max Boykoff appeared at the AAAS to argue that the media overstate the case of climate skeptics. You can read about that event here, in the local Boulder rag.

Meanwhile, in the High Country News, Tom Yulsman offers a response to a recent WSJ article critical of emissions reductions policies in Boulder. Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor responds to Yulsman and the WSJ in the comments. (h/t to Roger).

Finally, Bill Nye the Famous Nerdy Guy was pitted against the venerable meteorologist Joe Bastardi. Of interest here (to my students in particular), Nye calls out Bastardi on his use of the red herring. For my money, Nye has a far superior argument, though I wish he hadn’t raised the question of who has something to gain.

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Binding Treaty

February 22, 2010

Someone asked recently whether anyone would actually seek a binding treaty in Cancún. The answer? Yes. The US will:

The State Department has pledged to pursue a binding treaty covering “all major economies” during this year’s climate talks in Cancún, Mexico, according to a letter released today by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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Sunday Chores

February 21, 2010

Need a reason to keep your house tidy? Well, today’s your lucky day. On this fine Sunday evening I leave you with the following thought, brought to you straight from the 1950s.

Atomic tests at the Nevada Proving Grounds (later the Nevada Test Site) show effects on well-kept homes, homes filled with trash and combustibles, and homes…

(Embed doesn’t seem to be working, so check it out here: http://www.archive.org/details/Houseint1954)

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Color Me Terrified

February 20, 2010

The New York Times has an Op-Ed today on cows genetically-modified to experience less suffering.

We are most likely stuck with factory farms, given that they produce most of the beef and pork Americans consume. But it is still possible to reduce the animals’ discomfort — through neuroscience. Recent advances suggest it may soon be possible to genetically engineer livestock so that they suffer much less.

Among the many things that such an innovation suggests to me, it also strikes me as at least one counter-example to Singer’s argument. The way I see it, massive factory farms present a significant ethical problem even if the animals are modified in such a way that they stand mindlessly penned in their quarters, oblivious to their impending fate. It’s not the pain that’s doing the work, it’s what we do that matters.

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Kiss of Death

February 19, 2010

Adam Winkler offers some insight into the process behind the University of Alabama-Huntsville tragedy. Not that I object to tenure, mind you. I actually think it’s important on grounds other than those that Winkler sketches. Among other things, it gives junior faculty a serious incentive to be top scholars and publish a lot during their early years, and it gives senior faculty — by then hopefully vetted and productive scholars — a reprieve from the early publishing demands so that they can work with their junior colleagues and students. They can also contribute more productively to the University infrastructure.  (Universities don’t function like businesses, you might be interested to know. They’re run on a disaggregated, decentralized, quasi-volunteer basis. And they actually work pretty well.)

I just think that the downside stakes are so high that it makes incidents like the Alabama-Huntsville case terrifying:

A tenure denial can be a career killer. Many professors find that no other university will offer them a job. The old adage “publish or perish” isn’t hyperbole. An adverse tenure decision often marks the end of an academic career.

Today’s economic climate makes finding a new job that much more difficult. University endowments have been hit hard and public universities especially are struggling with severe budget cuts. Hiring at most schools is frozen. Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says, “The most likely result of being denied tenure in this nonexistent job market is that you will not be able to continue teaching…. You probably can’t get another job.”

Meanwhile, Brian Leiter points out that some departments are simply firing tenured faculty. What gives?

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de Boer Resigns

February 18, 2010

Information here.

From the Huffington Post: His departure takes effect July 1, five months before 193 nations are due to reconvene in Mexico for another attempt to reach a binding worldwide accord on controlling greenhouse gases. De Boer’s resignation adds to the uncertainty that a full treaty can be finalized there.

Uncertainty cuts both ways. Hard to say whether this improves or diminishes hopes for a binding treaty in Mexico.

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False Concretism

February 16, 2010

Among the many tropes circulating around the IPCC’s recent trouble is the distinction between the scientific findings of the report and the so-called public relations (PR) representation of those findings. Check out this article from yesterday’s ClimateWire (firewalled), referencing Thursday’s BBC article on the same topic. Says Nobel peace prize-winning physicist Sir John Houghton: “Your average scientist is not a good PR person because he wants to get on with his science.” The implication, obviously, is that since scientists aren’t good at PR, the IPCC is losing the PR battle.

Fair enough. Scientists can sometimes be embarrassingly nerdy and naive. (So can philosophers, btw. I don’t exclude myself from this category.) But the distinction between PR and science seems to me to be a monumental false concretism.

I’ll confess to sometimes making the distinction between PR and science myself, but I think it’s too easy to construct this falsely concrete distinction, to claim scientific integrity, and then to suggest that the problem lies primarily on the PR end. It’s a way of kludging through the core issue. Moreover, it’s a problem that may yield a particular set of responses from the scientific community, not all of which are particularly constructive. The response may be either to re-trench and make sure that the facts are as close to accurate as possible (as Jones was trying to do in the BBC interview that was so magnificently bastardized by the Daily Mail) or the response may be to try to shift the frame, to instigate a new PR effort, as the Obama administration has been trying to do.

A few posts ago I raised the topic of fallibilism and proposed that the IPCC and its proxies (like the fine fellas at Real Climate) would do better to acknowledge the fallibility of the report. By this I was making an epistemic claim: all science is fallible. That’s just a fact about science. Anybody who thinks otherwise doesn’t understand the nature of a scientific claim. To assert that the findings of the IPCC are rock-solid is to open the IPCC up to criticism of the nature that is now assaulting it.

“Oh look, here’s a mistake. Guess the IPCC isn’t as rock-solid as some have been saying. Oh well.”

The certainty with which the findings are frequently presented, I suspect, is the source of a really serious problem for those of us who are actually quite worried about the state of the climate. It’s my view that this is a problem for the theory of truth, as well as the theory of knowledge, that many people are functioning with. Rightly or wrongly, when competing theories clash with one another — when a correspondence theorist comes up against a coherentist, say — sparks fly and claims are questioned.

Granted, part of the reason for the vehement insistence on the solidity of scientific claims may be due to earlier discussions and flounderings around the notion of “consensus.” When the IPCC was said to represent the “scientific consensus,” this too opened the door for substantial criticism. “Consensus” is a tricky term. It seems on one hand to suggest unilateralism, but on the other hand to suggest democratic (or undemocratic) collaboration and collusion. There are problems with that, then, too.

No, it seems to me that it would be better just to say that this is the “best explanation.” And it’s true: the best explanation of the data we have available to us is the one offered in the IPCC report. There aren’t better explanations. If there were, they’d be under discussion. I will confess, however, that there are substantial political pitfalls in making statements of this nature as well.

Why is that? Because each epistemological view carries with it a medicine chest of horse-pills that must be swallowed by adherents.

Finally, I don’t pretend to be the first person to say this. This discussion has been going on for some time in other areas. I’ll say more on this in upcoming posts, but I suspect that the clashes between political factions in the climate debate are better understood in this sense than on the terms they currently are now. And for today’s missive, I’d prefer simply to call attention to the false concretism between PR and science.

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