Archive for October, 2009


Stripping Away the Moral Part

October 28, 2009

Steven Levitt, one of the Freakonomics duo, went on last night’s Daily Show to defend himself against critics (and to stir up another million or so suckers to buy his book). Anybody paying attention knows that Levitt and Dubner’s geoengineering chapter has created a good deal of consternation around the blogosphere. John Stewart, noting the sharp criticism coming from the environmental establishment, asks whether Levitt has “stepped on a secular religion.” Roger Pielke Jr. then picks up on Stewart’s faux disbelief to ask whether Stewart will get the same treatment that others have gotten, tangentially referencing a thread discussed at length here a few weeks ago.*

Roger knows the answer to his question, of course: probably not. Stewart will likely be given a pass. But that’s cool, because Stewart didn’t flesh out a substantive position. He just prodded Levitt, who I think sought in this interview the moral high ground. And that is where we, intrepid philosophers, enter the picture.

How did Levitt seek the moral high ground? By tragically misunderstanding his own discipline, of course.

More after the jump…

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Cheese Wagon

October 28, 2009

“Scathing,” is about the only word that can possibly describe this article, in which Dana Milbank mercilessly rakes Sen. James Inhofe over the coals. My skin burns just reading it.

[Inhofe] described the Democrats’ proposal as “the largest tax increase in — in history!” Agitated, his utterances disjointed, Inhofe went on: “Now, I also was — was kind of — I don’t want any of the media to think just because I had to sit here and listen to our good friend Senator Kerry for 28 minutes, that I don’t have responses to everything he said.”

Nobody doubted that Inhofe had a response. The doubt was whether the response would make any sense.



Off the Hook

October 27, 2009

U.N. Taps Tinker Bell as Ambassador of Green:

“We’re delighted Tinker Bell has agreed to be our Honorary Ambassador of Green,” said Kiyo Akasaka, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information. “This beloved animated character can help us inspire kids and their parents to nurture nature and do what they can to take care of the environment.”

You can’t say she doesn’t deserve it. As Wonkette aptly notes: “Tinker Bell is a fucking whore.”


Up, Up, and Away

October 27, 2009

David Owen argues here that New York is one of the eco-friendliest locations in the US. As a transplanted New Yorker, this sounds about right to me. Somehow my wife and I lived in a 650 square foot apartment for more than three years. Because we only shared one wall with the outside, much of our heat was shared with our neighbors. Our refrigerator was small. We went grocery shopping every day, only for what we needed. Waste was relatively minimal, as our trash bags had to be small enough to send down the chute. Plus, we didn’t drive, we didn’t have to water any lawns, we didn’t worry about destroying our natural surroundings.

Yet there is a somewhat strong argument against New York being the greenest city: ultimately, and there’s no hiding this, it is the belly of the consumer beast. Walk down any street and there are towering monoliths to money and consumerism. More than most towns — with the possible exception of Hollywood — New Yorkers control our popular culture. Don’t get me wrong, I  NY. I just wanna go on record that, while it’s probably true that any given New Yorker is greener than the average Ameri-bear, it’s not true that New York is a shining bastion of eco-hope.



October 27, 2009

Apparently London’s climate chief, Lord Stern, has recommended that people adopt a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons. Startling. Outrageous. Ludicrous!

This, of course, has been the recommendation for more than 20 years. There are innumerable books on this topic, the most recent of which, Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, even turned Queen-cum-Senator Amidala away from the dark side. Maybe this will help contextualize: MotherJones has a story on environmental push-back from big agriculture.


Capacity Building and EJ

October 27, 2009

Ariel Salleh (sociologist at the University of Sydney) gives a nice interview on environmental justice to Robyn Williams over at Ockham’s Razor. After a very long, jingle-bells-&-tinkling introduction, the discussion begins. What to do about the impoverished and poorest peoples?

Governments and international agencies have not given due credit to the capacities of peoples at the margins of capital. There’s a tacit environmental racism too, in letting these others pick up the tab, like when a nuclear waste dump is put in Aboriginal country; or when a REDD scheme converts the livelihood of Kalimantan farmers into a carbon sink for our coal-based consumer lifestyle.


Blind Numbers

October 26, 2009

I found this approach to extracting climate politics out of the data relatively interesting:

In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.

“If you look at the data and sort of cherry-pick a micro-trend within a bigger trend, that technique is particularly suspect,” said John Grego, a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina.

Yet the idea that things are cooling has been repeated in opinion columns, a BBC news story posted on the Drudge Report and in a new book by the authors of the best-seller “Freakonomics.” Last week, a poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 57 percent of Americans now believe there is strong scientific evidence for global warming, down from 77 percent in 2006.

I’d be curious to hear more about the methodology. Joe Romm and DeSmogBlog have more to say.


Peer Review. Game On.

October 26, 2009

In recent weeks, some commenters on this and other blogs have tried to argue that the peer review system in climate science is broken; that under normal circumstances, they might trust peer review, but for some reason (given the technical narrowness of peer review in dendrochronology, for instance) peer review couldn’t be trusted.

Today, we have news through Roger’s blog that at least some critical responses have been attended to through the proper peer review channels.

Among other things that this points to is the non-brokenness of peer review. So, I reiterate: if the failings of a given study are so grave as to undermine the study, then those failings should, and apparently can feasibly, travel through the appropriate channels of peer review.



October 26, 2009

One question that has been bothering me of late is the insistence by Senate majority leaders that they achieve the magical 60 votes to secure cloture and avoid a filibuster on legislation containing any variant of the public option. I had occasion at a friend’s housewarming party this weekend to run this past several colleagues of mine.  (Out of respect for them, they shall remain nameless. Much of the beer-and-pretzels discussion revolved around adult diapers, sweat lodges, Strom Thurmond, and the New York Yankees, so I’d hate to sully anyone’s good name. Suffice it to say, all of those I spoke with are reasonably familiar with the policy process.)

Word on the blogostreet is that the Obama Admin is pushing back on Harry Reid to accept a less robust public option because they think he doesn’t have enough votes for the more robust plan. Inside the Senate itself, it appears that folks like Russ Feingold are encouraging Reid to ignore the supermajority altogether. Some democrats are even threatening to filibuster any bill that does not have a public option. Nate Silver takes up a related issue, and Jane Hamsher points the finger at Harry Reid to ask what he’s hiding. The theme is also picked up herehere, and probably elsewhere.

“Why do folks care so much about the supermajority?” I asked, popping candy corns in my mouth.

I hate candy corns. But I continued…

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The Trolley Problem Breathes

October 24, 2009

This fantastic real-world account from the New York Times deserves closer examination.  Check out this killer scenario:

A 32-year-old man with cystic fibrosis is rushed to the hospital with appendicitis in the midst of a worsening pandemic caused by the H1N1 flu virus, which has mutated into a more deadly form. The man is awaiting a lung transplant and brought with him the mechanical ventilator that helps him breathe.

New York’s governor has declared a state of emergency and hospitals are following the state’s pandemic ventilator allocation plan — actual guidelines drafted in 2007 that are now being revisited. The plan aims to direct ventilators to those with the best chances of survival in a severe, 1918-like flu pandemic where tens of thousands develop life-threatening pneumonia.

Because the man’s end-stage lung disease caused by his cystic fibrosis is among a list of medical conditions associated with high mortality, the guidelines would bar the man from using a ventilator in a hospital, even though he is, unlike many with his illness, stable, in good condition, and not close to death. If the hospital admits him, the guidelines call for the machine that keeps him alive to be given to someone else.

The original trolley problem, for those unfamiliar with our sordid and incestuous body of literature in philosophy, is neatly summarized here. The NYTimes doesn’t offer us an exact parallel to the trolley problem, but I do like that we’re asked whether we should remove the ventilator of the man suffering from cystic fibrosis. (And why not? Shouldn’t we just turn the trolley to save the five? Ethics is a breeze!)

Yeah, so, I think the Times could be clearer on the scenario. From what I gather, the dude isn’t sick with H1N1, he’s just unlucky enough to have the opportunity to stumble into the hospital at the wrong time. Let’s assume that.

Also, it’s not clear if it’s his ventilator or the hospital’s ventilator. If it’s his ventilator, I think a lot of people would say that he shouldn’t have it taken from him. It’s just a contingency that he’s in the hospital at that time. Seems reasonable. He owns it.

If the ventilator is on loan from the hospital, I suspect fewer people would say that the hospital has no jurisdiction to take it from him, but I suspect that most would argue that the hospital still ought not to take it from him. They might argue along “first in time, first in right” style reasoning.

The question is: why would this ever be a guideline at all? Seems in both cases that the ventilator should stay with the man whose life depends on it. Doesn’t make sense to send the ventilator to another room, to save one H1N1 patient, only to have this guy die, particularly since his death isn’t linked directly to H1N1 and it’s not a question of simple ventilator allocation.

Suppose instead a different scenario. Suppose that our hypothetical cystic fibrosis patient is using a special sort of ventilator that could be used to save five people. Maybe H1N1 requires different pressures or something. What then?  Do the numbers change our conclusion that he ought to be allowed to keep his ventilator?