Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category


Climate and Closure

May 3, 2010

John Quiggin over at Crooked Timber offers this fascinating connection of the “Oregon Petition,” which allegedly offers 31,000 scientists who reject global warming, with the discussion that has been all the rage among (primarily) the right-wing intelliblogigentsia on “epistemic closure.”

Here’s the Wikipedia article, a further debunking from DeSmogBlog and here’s my own investigation from 2002. Some basic points

  • “Scientist’ In this petition means anyone who claims to have gone to university (initially, they had to claim some study of science subjects). The number of actual (PhD with published research) scientists who reject any part of the mainstream consensus on climate change is far smaller (Wikipedia provides a list of such scientists who have at least one published article). The number of such scientists with relevant expertise, who are not obvious cranks, ideologues or hired guns, is small enough to be counted on the fingers of one hand.
  • The petition and its reporting are dishonest in obvious ways (fake PNAS style, misreporting of the content) etc
  • The promoters, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine are obvious fruitcakes

I particularly appreciate the following observation, as I think it’s true. The standard defense is a sort of tu quoque, which makes it all the more refreshing that the discussion about epistemic closure is happening primarily among the right.

To avoid thread derailment, I’d like to defer to a separate thread (coming soon, I promise) the main rightwing response, which is a tu quoque, that is, that the left (here meaning Democrats and everyone to their left) is just as bad. I don’t believe there is anything comparable to the Oregon petition, but I want to leave this for a separate debate.

Instead, I’d like to end with the rhetorical question of whether, given the extent to which the US rightwing movement relies on the deliberate promotion of ignorance, anyone, regardless of their philosophical views on conservatism, libertarianism and so on, can associate with this movement and maintain any intellectual integrity. The converse question for the left, is whether there is any benefit in engaging intellectually with anyone who is, in the end, promoting ignorance and dishonesty by virtue of their affiliations.

For non-regular readers of Crooked Timber, but for climate scientist readers familiar with the Oregon Petition, you may be interested in heading there to participate in the discussion.

Finally, William Saletan offers what I take to be sage advice on how to avoid bubble think. Essentially, he offers the same tips that I propose all of my students should follow, but it should help to bear them in mind. My favorite? “5. Seek wisdom, not victory.”


New Blog

March 22, 2010

Reader Prajwal Kulkarni has started a new blog on science, policy, and politics. Unlike me, he’s chosen a straightforward name for his blog, which should spare him the now standard S&M jokes. Check it out. I think you’ll like what you see.

And apologies for the slack posting of late. We’re on spring break and I’m playing catch up.



February 2, 2010

Old habits die hard. Looks like Yuri Luzhkov, mayor of Moscow, doesn’t much care for houses (or the people in them).

The first positive annulment of private property – crude communism – is thus merely a manifestation of the vileness of private property, which wants to set itself up as the positive community system.

Communism (α) still political in nature – democratic or despotic; (β) with the abolition of the state, yet still incomplete, and being still affected by private property, i.e., by the estrangement of man. In both forms communism already is aware of being reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement; but since it has not yet grasped the positive essence of private property, and just as little the human nature of need, it remains captive to it and infected by it. It has, indeed, grasped its concept, but not its essence. (Marx, Private Property and Communism)

Estrangement is one thing. Estrangement in -20 C is something else entirely.


Sea Shepherd Splintered

January 8, 2010

Revkin had a post up a few days ago on Dot Earth about the Sea Shepherd ramming. Near the end of his post, Revkin slyly asks:

If a whale is hit by an exploding harpoon near Antarctica and the world doesn’t have a way to witness that, does it make a sound?

Apparently, Peter Singer, Philosopher and Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, responded:

Yes, it has a sound. Because the question about a tree falling in the forest assumed that there are no sentient being able to hear it fall. But whales are sentient beings, and they make sounds that can communicate through the water over a great distance. But even if the whale was alone it can hear the harpoon and feel its own agony, as studies have shown that harpooned whales often die slowly.

I’ve been heavily influenced by Singer, even though I disagree with him pretty strongly (methodologically speaking). Not only does his response to Revkin strike me as having missed the point of the question — the question, in other words, was not technically about whether whales are phenomenologically aware of their own slaughter, but about the extent to which the slaughtering of whales matters politically if no one is around to call attention to the fact that they’re being slaughtered — but it is unapologetically entrenched in his sentientist POV.

On the first point, clearly the question was political. One might also ask the same thing of a protest organization like Sea Shepherd: if they continue doing what they’re doing, and nobody is around to hear, does it make a difference?

Indeed, ever since Sea Shepherd began allowing cameramen on board to shoot Discovery Channel’s Whale Wars, critics of Sea Shepherd have accused Watson of jumping the whale shark.  My students, mostly fascinated by the extent to which Sea Shepherd walks a tricky legal line, cannot stop talking about what a pompous self-promoter Watson is. Until the show came on the air, they’d only caught wind of direct action organizations like Sea Shepherd through the twisted missives of the self-parody that is the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

But that’s just the way it should be: Whale wars is a media phenomenon. They’re in the news now, partly because they’ve been very good about getting and holding media attention.

On the second point, it’s true by definition that sentient creatures like whales are aware of pains and pleasures, and so presumably would “hear” the harpoon as it enters their body. But simply because this is true ought not to be the critical factor in determining what’s wrong with harpooning whales. Singer and many like him argue in multiple locations that sentience is what matters morally, presumably because pains are bad and pleasures are good. But many others disagree. So what if whales can feel the harpoon enter their body. Of course they can. Cows and pigs can probably also feel it when they get clobbered with a hatchet. I have to wonder if the awareness of the whale is a strong enough reason to stop harpooning whales.  To combat the shortcomings of this view, many try to argue for personhood, just as these scientists argue that dolphins should be viewed as non-human persons. Watson also argues something like this when he claims that whales are more intelligent than humans. This strategy also has its substantial shortcomings. For starters, it’s a relatively confusing, given the commonplace use of the term “person,” and the extent to which this is caught up in moral language.

A slightly better strategy, it seems to me, is to argue that the relevant features of an existing being are salient in a particular circumstance. I guess my attitude is that we can give lots of great reasons why whales ought not to be harpooned and slaughtered, and we don’t need to adopt the strong sentientist or personhood position to make these claims. There are reasons for me to not go mowing down a forest in Alaska, for instance, and those reasons don’t necessarily overlap with the forest’s intelligence, personhood, or ability to feel.

Semester begins on Monday. Should be a bit easier to hit my schedule when I’m in a routine.



November 21, 2009

Revkin delivers, front page, above the (digital) fold. Will it sell papers? Hard to say. Given what I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot) I still think there’s not much there. I’m waiting for someone to persuade me otherwise.

As if on cue, Romm offers the counter-punch.

UPDATE: This is such a massively interesting issue that I’m not doing the work I need to do this weekend. I’m also going to leave this post here and add a few updates, rather than generate a new post. Readers should definitely avail themselves of Kim Zetter’s article in Wired and Joe Romm’s further discussions of some of the content of the e-mails, in this case, the e-mail from Trenberth. I was thinking that I might do the same thing, but he beat me to it. Here’s the article (pdf) that Trenberth is referring to.

UPDATE 2: This reply from Carbon Fixated is very smartly done. Interesting in its own right too.



November 19, 2009

Talking Points Memo has some interesting commentary on the filibuster.


Behavior Problems

November 19, 2009

ClimateWire has a nice piece out on the behavioral dimensions of climate change [subscription required]. Here’s a taste:

[P]eople’s attitudes do not translate into action. But most environmental activism remains centered around the assumption that changing behavior starts with changing attitudes and knowledge.

“Social psychologists have now known for four decades that the relationship between people’s attitudes and knowledge and behavior is scant at best,” said McKenzie-Mohr. Yet campaigns remain heavily focused on brochures, flyers and other means of disseminating information. “I could just as easily call this presentation ‘beyond brochures,'” he said.

In the marketing world, one way this issue manifests itself is in the “say-do problem,” which says that what people actually buy does not necessarily correspond to what they say they will buy. That complicates the efforts of those who seek to predict consumer response to a product, for example.

“The say-do problem isn’t something just in the marketing world,” said Art Barnard, president of a Madison, Wis.-based market research firm, GKA Research. “Why do people constantly say they’re going to meet you on a Friday night, meet their friends, and never show up?”

In philosophy, there are related questions about moral motivation. IMHO, questions in moral psychology are deeply interesting and relevant to environmental problems. What matters is the extent to which a reason can be said to be motivating, or how reasons-responsive we are as individuals. It is plainly not the case, it seems to me, that people with all the right reasons and all the right knowledge will necessarily take the steps required to move forward. In part this is a question for social-psychologists, but it is also a deep question for philosophers. Is this a failure of reason, for instance?  Or is it simply a failure of psychology?