Archive for May, 2010


Fudge Swirl

May 15, 2010

There’s a kinda interesting/kinda repetitive discussion going on over at Roger’s blog about whether Mike’s “nature trick” to “hide the decline” attempt was either a face-saving fudge or a fraud. It’s a response to this Der Spiegel article, which appears to suggest that the climate science was compromised. Lots to say about this article, but let’s just look at the fudge/fraud issue.

Roger’s on the fudge side. Some of his readers are on the fraud side. I guess I’m on a side similar to Roger’s–that is, I see it as a fudge–but I disagree that it’s a “face-saving” fudge. A face-saving fudge would involve some attempt to save face, or some attempt to look good given other statements or claims that may have been made previously. I can’t imagine that that was what was going on when the climate scientists sought to hide the decline.

More likely to me, and more defensible in many ways, is that Mann and others were fudging the findings in order to “smooth them out” so that they were easier to read, so that their findings would not be misinterpreted by a lazy and apathetic press, so that an anomalous line wouldn’t distract from the overarching observation, which is that there is persistent change. Moreover, I assume that they could provide a moderately plausible argument for this, since the instrumental record was also in place and widely viewed to be more reliable. It’s not like, after all, we turn to ice core studies, or dendro studies, for most of our 20th century climate information.

What makes this hide the decline move problematic is that it flies in the face of what can sometimes be the insistence from the climate community that they are not being political. If my read is correct–and frankly, I think it is the most charitable read–smoothing out findings and hiding the decline is, without question, a move that is taken with political considerations in mind. Seems to me that climate scientists would do better just to acknowledge that this is a deeply political issue and to do so publicly. It won’t undermine the science.


The Repugnant Conclusion

May 14, 2010

Many years ago, Derek Parfit described a state of affairs that he dubbed the “Repugnant Conclusion.” He noted that for “any possible population of at least ten billion people, all with a very high quality of life, there must be some much larger imaginable population whose existence, if other things are equal, would be better even though its members have lives that are barely worth living.” He wasn’t actually advocating for population policies that encouraged growth so as to improve global happiness, no matter a single individual’s quality of life. He found such a conclusion repugnant.

Though not exactly parallel, today’s insensitive comments by Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, remind me a bit of that conclusion. “Hey,” says Hayward, cheer up. This spill of oil in the gulf is “relatively tiny” compared to the enormity of the ocean.

He might as well extend his comments temporally across geologic time. Not only is this spill relatively tiny compared to the enormity of the ocean, but in the grand cosmic scheme of things, this is a very small bit of oil. Several decades from now, the ocean will clean itself up, the plants will return, and the losses will be largely unnoticeable to all but the most astute marine biologists, paleontologists and archeologists. The world will find a new balance.


Fishing Hunt

May 13, 2010

For those who may be of the mind that Cucinelli’s witch expedition against Michael Mann is limited to the climate community, I’m here to report that other academic blogs are now picking up the thread. Brian Leiter linked to it today, with the title, “The End of the University of Virginia.” More are sure to follow. Here’s a nice piece from the American Constitution Society.

Cuccinelli has acknowledged that he has a political agenda, and he seems to be pursuing it with every means at his disposal. As he told one reporter, “you know I’m a politician and I ran on an agenda for attorney general winning the most votes that anyone has ever gotten in history and I’m doing exactly what I said I was going to do.” (Apparently the role of the attorney general does not include coordinating with the governor, even in the same party; as Governor Bob McDonnell toldWashington Post reporter, “What the attorney general’s theories are – I only know what I read in the paper, and I’ve not spoken with him.”)

Cuccinelli has also said that he does not believe that human activities caused global warming. Eight days before he served the university with the subpoena, he filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency, contending that the “Climategate” emails constitute after-discovered evidence – despite the academic and scientific consensus suggesting otherwise – that should compel the EPA to re-open public discussion over regulation of fuel standards.

Translation: this move against Mann is entirely political… which is a pretty damning (albeit not surprising) admission, if it’s the case that the allegation against Mann is that his science is sullied by the political.


Story of Water

May 12, 2010

More video for your afternoon. (I’m on a train to Boston, sans internet access.)


Gun. To. Head.

May 12, 2010

Hard to say if this is, legally speaking, a case of duress, but if the charges are true, I’d say that, at minimum, the “you can’t go home” part ought not to have been uttered.

Workers aboard an exploding offshore drilling platform were told to sign statements denying they were hurt or witnessed the blast that rocked the rig, killed 11 and spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, their attorneys said Tuesday.

Survivors floated for hours in life boats in the Gulf of Mexico after the disaster on the Deepwater Horizon, and were greeted by company officials onshore asking them to sign statements that they had no “first hand or personal knowledge” of the incident, attorneys said.

“These men are told they have to sign these statements or they can’t go home,” said Tony Buzbee, a Houston attorney for 10 Transocean workers. “I think it’s pretty callous, but I’m not surprised by it.”

The manifold ethical problems associated with this single disaster are already pretty difficult to parse. It’s hard to know where to stick the fork in. Still, if it’s the case that signed statements like those referenced above exist, and if it’s the case that the rig workers want to change their testimony to say that they do have first-hand knowledge of the incident, I can’t imagine anything that would validate the content of the former statements.


Lighting Up Leaves

May 12, 2010


Vodpod videos no longer available.


Ramping Up the Risk

May 11, 2010

The Gulf Oil Spill is fast shaping up to be one of the worst environmental calamities in US history. As it happens, some of our friends who may know a thing or two about insane environmental disasters, have recommended that we just nuke the place into stability.

Komsomoloskaya Pravda, the best-selling Russian daily, reports that in Soviet times such leaks were plugged with controlled nuclear blasts underground. The idea is simple, KP writes: “the underground explosion moves the rock, presses on it, and, in essence, squeezes the well’s channel.”

Yes! It’s so simple, in fact, that the Soviet Union, a major oil exporter, used this method five times to deal with petrocalamities. The first happened in Uzbekistan, on September 30, 1966 with a blast 1.5 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb and at a depth of 1.5 kilometers. KP also notes that subterranean nuclear blasts were used as much as 169 times in the Soviet Union to accomplish fairly mundane tasks like creating underground storage spaces for gas or building canals.

And why not? What’s the possible harm in trying out a technology to stop what will potentially be the greatest environmental disaster the US has ever seen. If it’s already going to be the greatest environmental disaster, what could it hurt to pile a bit more disaster on top of that disaster?


Outta Town

May 10, 2010

I’m outta town this week. But here, read this interview with Jeff Goodell on Geoengineering.



May 6, 2010

In a move that should perplex all but the most cynical climate skeptics, the GOP has tapped Lord Monckton (?) as their sole witness in tomorrow’s hearing in front of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. Seriously, Lord Monckton is a parody. There are far less goofy representatives of the contrarian climate position. Why not go with those folks, or at least, find another academic somewhere?

Check out the line-up. It’s actually kind of funny:

WHAT: Select Committee hearing, “The Foundation of Climate Science”

WHEN: Thursday, May 6, 2010, 9:30 AM

WHERE: 2237 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, and on the web at

Dr. Lisa Graumlich, Director, School of Natural Resources and the Environment, University of Arizona, and member of the “Oxburgh Inquiry” panel
Dr. Chris Field, Director, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution of Washington, and co-chair of “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” portion of new IPCC report due in 2014
Dr. James McCarthy, Professor of Biological Oceanography, Harvard University, past President and Chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, co-chair of “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” portion of IPCC report published in 2001
Dr. James Hurrell, Senior Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research, contributor to IPCC reports
Lord Christopher Monckton, Chief Policy Adviser, Science and Public Policy Institute


Outstripping Even Itself

May 5, 2010

Boy, the New York Times is outdoing itself today. It has two asinine articles on ethics. Here’s one, by Paul Bloom, on the amazing inclinations toward justice and morality of infant babies. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Reflection be damned, even babies are moral!

And here’s another, by Robert Wright, on the amazing application of justice and morality to invading space aliens. (Yes, you read that correctly.) See? Fuck it. Normative ethics be damned, if space aliens figure out how to get here, they will have needed to develop a sufficiently self-preservationist ethic to survive, which will ipso facto translate into respect for humans.

All ethics hacks must know, instinctively, that the end of the semester is upon those of us who are actually serious about ethics — at least, those of us who basically read and study ethics all day long. Exam week is like amnesty for the promulgation of stupid ideas. (What is it about these guys that gives them the impression that they don’t need to know anything about ethics to write about it?)


Let’s take these one at a time, shall we? (Quickly. And then, back to grading and writing.) Bloom first, and our tip to his mistake comes in his opening sentence:

Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year-old boy take justice into his own hands.

No. No, they did not watch that, unless you think of justice as the kind of thing captured in a Charles Bronson movie.

But the current work I’m involved in, on baby morality, might seem like a perverse and misguided next step.

Yes. Yes, it is a perverse and misguided step, because babies are not moral agents, unless you don’t take moral guidance and reflection seriously, in which case they’re moral in the same way that my computer is moral.

A reason this view has persisted is that, for many years, scientists weren’t sure how to go about studying the mental life of babies.

No. That’s probably not the reason that this view has persisted. The reason that this view has persisted is because ethical action is generally contrasted with instinctive or brute action, and as any parent will tell you, babies are friggin’ brutes.

Look, that babies may be involved in doing “rudimentary math,” or that they may speak in rudimentary grunts and monosyllabic words, or maybe even that they know that some grown-ups have false beliefs, doesn’t at all suggest that somehow they’re engaged in the moral community, or that, god forbid, they’re morally responsible for their actions. They’re just trying to figure it all out. Aristotle said as much several thousand years ago. It’s interesting, but it’s a misapprehension of the highest order to suggest that somehow this is morality. At the very best, it’s a nascent morality, prone to completely fucking things up.

To be fair, Bloom redeems himself partway through his article. It’s pretty interesting research he’s conducting — it’s just that his conclusions are cockamamie. He’s not actually studying the roots of ethics or morality. He’s just watching what babies do, much like I could watch what grown-ups do. I don’t even think it’s right to refer to it as the “moral life of babies.” That’s like talking about the “aesthetic, the literary, or the mathematical life of babies” and suggesting somehow that babies are aesthetically, literarily, or mathematically plugged in. They’re just not.

Now onto Wright. He has this to say:

A slightly less hopeful argument has been made by — well, by me. In my book “Nonzero” I argue that the moral progress Singer rightly celebrates has been driven less by pure reason than by pragmatic self-interest. Technology has drawn groups of people into more and more far-flung “non-zero-sum” relations — relations of interdependence; increasingly it has been in the interest of one group to acknowledge the humanity of another group, if only so the groups can play win-win games. In this view, the decline of American prejudice toward Japanese after World War II was driven less by purely rational enlightenment than by the Japanese transition from mortal enemies to trade partners and Cold War allies. (In this TED conference talk, Steven Pinker, who is writing a book on the decline of violence, contrasts my view with Singer’s.)

If I’m right, and we generally grant the moral significance of other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest to do so, then whywouldn’t we, in 100 or 200 years, do what Hawking imagines aliens doing — happen upon a planet, extract its resources through whatever brutality is most efficient and then move on to the next target? Absent cause to be nice, why would we be nice?

Wait, you have a book? Is it for sale? Too bad you don’t have a internationally distributed column in which to mention something about it. You might sell a lot of copies.

Okay, first things first: this “slightly less hopeful argument” is made by — well, not just you, but every fracking undergraduate in my introduction to ethics class, most of whom are sophomores. I’ll leave you to find the appropriate adjective to describe your idea.

If you’re right, you may have just tipped your hand that you, too, do not understand the first thing about normative ethics, because as a matter of empirical fact it may be true that — generalizing here — we maybe do extend moral significance to other beings to the extent that it’s in our interest, but the fundamental ethical question isn’t what do we do, it’s what we ought to do. Since you don’t understand that, you fail.

It gets worse:

I argue in the penultimate chapter that if we don’t radically develop our “moral imagination” — get much better at putting ourselves in the shoes of people very different from ourselves, even the shoes of our enemies — then the planet could be in big trouble.

How original. Are you suggesting that we should think about how things ought to be? Curious… because that’s exactly what ethicists do. And we don’t do it by strengthening our “moral imagination” or by putting ourselves in the shoes of others. That kind of thinking died a violent death in the 1700s, if not before that, once we recognized that our imagination is itself shaped by our animalistic predilections toward our own friggin’ self-interests, which can’t be what ethics is based on, despite the facile and confused scribblings of the world’s most unjustifiably renowned Russian emigrant.

Sorry. I’m cranky. I’ve read too many undergraduate exams in the past 72 hours. It pains me to read similar such drivel in the New York Friggin Times.

To put a cap on this, I was talking about these articles with one of my philosophy colleagues today and he said the following:

Just once, I’d like to see one of these articles go: “Can they really tell right from wrong? No. The end.”

Couldn’t’ve put it better myself.