Archive for March, 2010

The Long and the Short of It

31 March 2010

Bias fascinates me, so I was, of course, fascinated when articles and blog entries on the rift between climatologists and meteorologists hits the news. Yesterday, stories were all over Google news and various blogs. For example, Thomas Lin’s Dot Earth blog has a good discussion: “Weather Forecasters on Global Warming”

What I didn’t find–although admittedly I read only a few of the 90 some results–was a discussion of a possible innate bias between these two groups. Here, I am not talking about logic but natural inclination. By job description, a climatologist focuses on the long term. That’s what climatologists do, and, one would assume, that’s what someone who chose to become a climatologist wants to do. By definition, a meteorologist is interested in the short term–the weather. For a weatherman, a ten day prediction is long term.

My assumption is that these people chose their vocations according to their innate preferences, a type of natural bias, for either short or long term views of the world. In fact, I would hope they chose their jobs because of an innate preference, because otherwise, many of them are probably pretty miserable in their jobs.

I have no keen insights other than this generalization, and I certainly have no proof of anything here. However, I do remember the adage that to a person whose only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If I’m right about this natural division between climatologists and meteorologists, I find it distressing that those with a predilection for the short term view hold the media limelight when live in a long term world.



Positively Stupid

28 March 2010

Some think I’m an alarmist. A pessimist. Mistaken. In need of anti-depressants. A Debby Downer.

I laugh. I’m a realist and a pretty cheerful one at that.

Still, years ago, after hearing many praise Dr. Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, I read it. By the time I finished, I was furious because I actually paid money to be told to deny reality. Reading his book was, for me, not a positive experience.

So I was glad when Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I was even happier when I discovered Peak Shrink of Peak Oil Blues has a couple of excellent posts on the topic:

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

“Do You Have a Panglossian Disorder?”

For anyone wondering how American become so positively stupid, I can also suggest a couple of good books.

The American Religion by Harold Bloom (1992)

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter (1970)

Both of these delve into the melding of Calvinism and commerce in the American psyche.

For those who wonder how to keep on keeping on without religion and self-delusion, I also recommend Derrick Jensen’s 2006 Orion article “Beyond Hope.”

For some quick, funny views of reality, I also recommend viewing some of the demotivational posters at

Here’s one for those who’ve fallen prey to magical (but positive!) thinking:

The abyss is, folks. It just IS. We can live good lives knowing that.


Handbasket Report: US ahead of Schedule!

27 March 2010

For once, the United States is ahead of schedule on something. Sounds like good news, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it is not.

Social Security to See Payout Exceed Pay-In This Year

The projections were that this wouldn’t happen “until at least 2016.” If memory serves, a few years back, the projections were 2020, 2035, or even further out.

Of course, Chief actuary Stephen C. Goss said the Social Security fund “could start to grow again if the economy recovers briskly.” This is my favorite line.

My second favorite remark comes from Alan Greenspan. Recalling the three choices the fund had during the late 70s, early 80s–“raise taxes, lower benefits or bail out the program by tapping general revenue”–he said the same three apply today. Then he said, “Even if the trust fund level goes down, there’s no action required, until the level of the trust fund gets to zero. . . . At that point, you have to cut benefits, because benefits have to equal receipts.”

“Benefits have to equal receipts”?

When I read that line, I imagined this stamped across it: Does Not Apply to Banks or Wall Street.


The Police State–The Video

26 March 2010

After this morning’s reading, I just had to post this YouTube video. First time I’ve smiled today.

Note: The actual title “Deconfliction” derives from the more usual verb form–to deconflict

1. (military) To change the flightpath of a craft or weapon in order that there is less chance of an accidental collision.
2. (computer science) To resolve contradictory conclusions or responses to queries in a rule-based or deductive reasoning system.
3. To alter (something) to avoid conflicting with something else


[YouTube =

And they even wove in America’s innumeracy. Wonderful.


Stop the Presses!

26 March 2010

When I awoke, I was greeted by this headline: “Tempers Flare As Reports of Anti-Democratic Violence Mount.” I thought that was troubling enough, then I started checking out some of my favorite blogs and found a portion of Paul Craig Roberts’ “Truth Has Fallen and Taken Liberty with It” on Richard Brenneman’s blog Eats Shoots ‘n Leaves.

With a hat tip to Brenneman, I’m going to post the full story here. The link on his site went to World News Daily Information Clearing House: News You Won’t Find on CNN or FoxNews, but the story is viral on the Web. I stopped after clicking after 30 pages on Google.

Here’s the entire article by Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan and former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal:

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

March 24, 2010 “Information Clearing House” — There was a time when the pen was mightier than the sword. That was a time when people believed in truth and regarded truth as an independent power and not as an auxiliary for government, class, race, ideological, personal, or financial interest.

Today Americans are ruled by propaganda. Americans have little regard for truth, little access to it, and little ability to recognize it.

Truth is an unwelcome entity. It is disturbing. It is off limits. Those who speak it run the risk of being branded “anti-American,” “anti-semite” or “conspiracy theorist.”

Truth is an inconvenience for government and for the interest groups whose campaign contributions control government.

Truth is an inconvenience for prosecutors who want convictions, not the discovery of innocence or guilt.

Truth is inconvenient for ideologues.

Today many whose goal once was the discovery of truth are now paid handsomely to hide it. “Free market economists” are paid to sell offshoring to the American people. High-productivity, high value-added American jobs are denigrated as dirty, old industrial jobs. Relicts from long ago, we are best shed of them. Their place has been taken by “the New Economy,” a mythical economy that allegedly consists of high-tech white collar jobs in which Americans innovate and finance activities that occur offshore. All Americans need in order to participate in this “new economy” are finance degrees from Ivy League universities, and then they will work on Wall Street at million dollar jobs.

Economists who were once respectable took money to contribute to this myth of “the New Economy.”

And not only economists sell their souls for filthy lucre. Recently we have had reports of medical doctors who, for money, have published in peer-reviewed journals concocted “studies” that hype this or that new medicine produced by pharmaceutical companies that paid for the “studies.”

The Council of Europe is investigating big pharma’s role in hyping a false swine flu pandemic in order to gain billions of dollars in sales of the vaccine.

The media helped the US military hype its recent Marja offensive in Afghanistan, describing Marja as a city of 80,000 under Taliban control. It turns out that Marja is not urban but a collection of village farms.

And there is the global warming scandal, in which climate scientists, financed by Wall Street and corporations anxious to get their mitts on “cap and trade” and by a U.N. agency anxious to redistribute income from rich to poor countries, concocted a doomsday scenario in order to create profit in pollution.

Wherever one looks, truth has fallen to money.

Wherever money is insufficient to bury the truth, ignorance, propaganda, and short memories finish the job.

I remember when, following CIA director William Colby’s testimony before the Church Committee in the mid-1970s, presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan issued executive orders preventing the CIA and U.S. black-op groups from assassinating foreign leaders. In 2010 the US Congress was told by Dennis Blair, head of national intelligence, that the US now assassinates its own citizens in addition to foreign leaders.

When Blair told the House Intelligence Committee that US citizens no longer needed to be arrested, charged, tried, and convicted of a capital crime, just murdered on suspicion alone of being a “threat,” he wasn’t impeached. No investigation pursued. Nothing happened. There was no Church Committee. In the mid-1970s the CIA got into trouble for plots to kill Castro. Today it is American citizens who are on the hit list. Whatever objections there might be don’t carry any weight. No one in government is in any trouble over the assassination of U.S. citizens by the U.S. government.

As an economist, I am astonished that the American economics profession has no awareness whatsoever that the U.S. economy has been destroyed by the offshoring of U.S. GDP to overseas countries. U.S. corporations, in pursuit of absolute advantage or lowest labor costs and maximum CEO “performance bonuses,” have moved the production of goods and services marketed to Americans to China, India, and elsewhere abroad. When I read economists describe offshoring as free trade based on comparative advantage, I realize that there is no intelligence or integrity in the American economics profession.

Intelligence and integrity have been purchased by money. The transnational or global U.S. corporations pay multi-million dollar compensation packages to top managers, who achieve these “performance awards” by replacing U.S. labor with foreign labor. While Washington worries about “the Muslim threat,” Wall Street, U.S. corporations and “free market” shills destroy the U.S. economy and the prospects of tens of millions of Americans.

Americans, or most of them, have proved to be putty in the hands of the police state.
Americans have bought into the government’s claim that security requires the suspension of civil liberties and accountable government. Astonishingly, Americans, or most of them, believe that civil liberties, such as habeas corpus and due process, protect “terrorists,” and not themselves. Many also believe that the Constitution is a tired old document that prevents government from exercising the kind of police state powers necessary to keep Americans safe and free.

Most Americans are unlikely to hear from anyone who would tell them any different.

I was associate editor and columnist for the Wall Street Journal. I was Business Week’s first outside columnist, a position I held for 15 years. I was columnist for a decade for Scripps Howard News Service, carried in 300 newspapers. I was a columnist for the Washington Times and for newspapers in France and Italy and for a magazine in Germany. I was a contributor to the New York Times and a regular feature in the Los Angeles Times. Today I cannot publish in, or appear on, the American “mainstream media.”

For the last six years I have been banned from the “mainstream media.” My last column in the New York Times appeared in January, 2004, coauthored with Democratic U.S. Senator Charles Schumer representing New York. We addressed the offshoring of U.S. jobs. Our op-ed article produced a conference at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and live coverage by C-Span. A debate was launched. No such thing could happen today.

For years I was a mainstay at the Washington Times, producing credibility for the Moony newspaper as a Business Week columnist, former Wall Street Journal editor, and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. But when I began criticizing Bush’s wars of aggression, the order came down to Mary Lou Forbes to cancel my column.

The American media does not serve the truth. It serves the government and the interest groups that empower the government.

America’s fate was sealed when the public and the anti-war movement bought the government’s 9/11 conspiracy theory. The government’s account of 9/11 is contradicted by much evidence. Nevertheless, this defining event of our time, which has launched the US on interminable wars of aggression and a domestic police state, is a taboo topic for investigation in the media. It is pointless to complain of war and a police state when one accepts the premise upon which they are based.

These trillion dollar wars have created financing problems for Washington’s deficits and threaten the U.S. dollar’s role as world reserve currency. The wars and the pressure that the budget deficits put on the dollar’s value have put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block. Former Goldman Sachs chairman and U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is after these protections for the elderly. Fed chairman Bernanke is also after them. The Republicans are after them as well. These protections are called “entitlements” as if they are some sort of welfare that people have not paid for in payroll taxes all their working lives.

With over 21 percent unemployment as measured by the methodology of 1980, with American jobs, GDP, and technology having been given to China and India, with war being Washington’s greatest commitment, with the dollar over-burdened with debt, with civil liberty sacrificed to the “war on terror,” the liberty and prosperity of the American people have been thrown into the trash bin of history.

The militarism of the U.S. and Israeli states, and Wall Street and corporate greed, will now run their course. As the pen is censored and its might extinguished, I am signing off.

Paul Craig Roberts was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury during President Reagan’s first term. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal. He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University, and Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He was awarded the Legion of Honor by French President Francois Mitterrand.

This commentary precedes the article on

Editor: When Paul Craig Roberts gave us permission to post this article, he indicated to Alex Jones that it would probably be his last. Regular readers of PCR’s outstanding columns will be disappointed to hear that he is bowing out for the time being. Alex will discuss the reasons behind this on tomorrow’s show. Roberts has also told us that he will probably appear as a guest on The Alex Jones Show later next week to expand on why he has decided to “sign off,” as he puts it in the [above] article.

For more information on Roberts, Wikipedia gives a good overview:

It looks like Roberts has decided the presses have already stopped. Should I worry about how long it’s going to be before the US starts blocking Internet access the way China does?


Scientific Bias and Other Worries

25 March 2010

Let’s admit it. Bias exists in science. Much of it just may not be as open and obvious as some think it is.

Many say that scientists, notably climate and energy scientists working in public universities and national agencies, shouldn’t be trusted because their research is government funded. The general assertion is that many scientists tailor their findings to meet some political criteria, to receive further funding or, worse yet, to advance their own left wing, anti-capitalist, one world agenda or whatever. I admit to having difficulty understanding this line of thought since, in the US at least, scientists, many with tenure, perform research through both Republican and Democratic administrations.

On the other hand, I’m openly skeptical of research funded by corporate or political organizations. I suggest we trust them even less than the government funded scientists if only because the corporate or politically funded scientists are openly beholden to employers unlikely to be voted out of power every few years.

As an example, here’s an article to consider. It’s from the online version of the Copehagen Post:

Oil Industry behind Critical Wind Energy Report
Friday, 19 March 2010

Conservative think tank admits that report critical of Denmark’s wind power industry was commissioned by US think tank

A controversial report critical of the wind energy industry from conservative think tank CEPOS was commissioned and paid for by an American think tank with close ties to the coal and oil industries, according to trade journal Ingeniøren.

The report, which was published last September and concluded that Danish wind energy figures were misleading, was taken by CEPOS members to the US media in the months leading up to the COP15 climate summit in Copenhagen. The message behind the report indicated that the Danish wind turbine industry model was not effective.

Numerous experts have since strongly criticised the report’s conclusions, challenging many of the figures and the means in which those figures were obtained.

But now it appears that the report was indirectly commissioned and paid for by the American coal and oil lobby.

A press release from the Institute for Energy Research (IER) indicated that it had commissioned the report from CEPOS.

IER reportedly receives funding from the American oil and coal lobby. The think tank has posted a summary of the CEPOS report on its website which includes the claims that ‘in 2006 scarcely 5 percent of the nation’s electricity demand was met by wind. And over the past five years, the average is less than 10 percent — despite Denmark having carpeted its land with [wind turbines]’.

CEPOS CEO Martin Ågerup admitted to Ingeniøren that the report was both commissioned and paid for by IER. But he said he was not aware of IER receiving funding from the coal and oil industry.

‘I don’t know who supports them. That doesn’t interest me. They contacted me and so we did the report,’ Ågerup said.

Ågerup admitted, however, that during his company’s tour of the US last autumn, he and one of the report’s authors, Hugh Sharman, were made aware of the relationship between IER and the American coal and oil industries.

‘I was told that IER was supported by coal and oil interests, but I don’t know the specific sponsors,’ he said. But then it’s common for people to have sponsors for a project – just as we have also had, for example, for reports dealing with integration and the school system.’

‘The only condition we impose is that we are allowed to be fully independent in our conclusions and the assessments we make,’ said Ågerup. ‘And IER has fully lived up to that condition.’

Perhaps the IER did, but consider that Ågerup heads the conservative think tank CEPOS. Could that have shaded the conclusions and assessments? Even if these were tinkered with, did the scientists do the tinkering? For example, a relative of mine once worked in the forecasting department of a major corporation. After the economists in the department sent in their figures, the corporate types routinely rejected these figures, often suggesting the numbers they WANTED to see.

Could something like that be going on here? I don’t know, but I’ll admit I’m biased against corporations. But while I am openly dubious about corporate types, I don’t believe for a moment that most scientists are anything other than people trying to find answers. I do, however, I believe our brains can play tricks on us. If anyone thinks that’s not true, I suggest reading that Wikipedia list of cognitive biases I’ve mentioned before.

Right now, I have no informed opinion on this study of Danish wind energy. However others such as DeSmogBlog are weighing in on it: “Institute for Energy Research Admits It Was Behind Anti-Wind Study”

For now though, again for the sake of argument, let’s shift the emphasis from bald assumptions of open bias to something else, something both more obvious and more subtle: Human beings have biases, conscious or unconscious. We expect certain things to be true because of emotion. Consequently, scientists, if they are human, and I think many of them are, will have biases.

I remember watching the late Stephen Jay Gould lecture on the subject. As an example, he talked about the 19th Century scientists who studied human intelligence using brain size as their measure. Bigger is better, right? They poured seeds into skulls to measure the volume of the brains that once filled them. Gould explained that the biases of the day meant that most of these dedicated and decent scientists knew in their hearts that men were smarter than women and that whites were smarter than blacks. He envisioned these scientists unconsciously giving the small skull of a white male another couple of taps on the table to make room for more seed. Similarly, they’d gently pour seed into the distressingly large skull of a black man and quickly dump it out without those taps. These scientists also failed to note that the skulls of women are smaller than those of most men because men are typically larger than women. Gould said that these scientists were almost certainly honest people who were simply unaware of their biases. He went on to say that future scientists will laugh at us for biases we have yet to recognize.

I hope they’ll have the luxury of laughing. I’m not so sure because, while the process of discovering biases is one of the values of the scientific method, it’s time consuming. Sooner or later–generally later–the biases are discovered and pounded out through new discoveries, repetitions of experiments, refinements of methodology, and such.

A related problem of bias today hits the non-scientific public in the form of unrepresentative weighting. Dozens or hundreds of climate change studies from the world are balanced equally with the voices of a loud few, many of them clearly political or corporate and few of them even scientists.

The prevalence of familiar faces among the climate change skeptics continues to bother me. For example, scientist S. Fred Singer was once a major voice for the tobacco industry. Now he’s one of the leading climate change skeptics. Senator James Inhofe represents an oil-industry state. Bias? Frankly, I’m not happy that Al Gore is out there either because he represents such an easy target. I have more respect for scientists, for example, John Christy and Michael Mann who started RealClimate .

Speaking of Mann, here’s a paragraph from “Behind the Hockey Stick,” a profile of this prominent climatologist best known for his “hockey stick” temperature chart. The article was published in the March 2005 issue of Scientific American.

Mann thinks that the attacks will continue, because many skeptics, such as the Greening Earth Society and the Tech Central Station Web site, obtain funds from petroleum interests. “As long as they think it works and they’ve got unlimited money to perpetuate their disinformation campaign,” Mann believes, “I imagine it will go on, just as it went on for years and years with tobacco until it was no longer tenable–in fact, it became perjurable to get up in a public forum and claim that there was no science” behind the health hazards of smoking.

What bothers me is that Mann’s right. This situation “will go on, just as it went on for years and years.” That’s the scientific method. Unfortunately, I’m just not sure we have years and years to wait.


Arrogant AND Paranoid–Not a Good Combination

24 March 2010

“Masters of Arrogance,” my 27 Feb. 2010 post, talked of the American tendency to assume our mastery over an ignorant and often malevolent world. Unfortunately, there’s another downside to that posture, a paranoid tendency to assume that those ignorant and malevolent fools are out to get us. And these days, treacherous scientists are often at the head of that list.

This 20 Mar. 2010 New York Times article presents a good example: “Academic Paper in China Sets Off Alarms in U.S.”

The authors of this paper made the mistake of using standard science jargon, in this case “attack,” and set off paranoid reactions in the United States reminiscent of the reactions to a climate scientist’s use of the jargon word “trick” a while back.

Here’s the Chinese engineering student’s reaction to his new fame as a potential terrorist:

When reached by telephone, Mr. Wang said he and his professor had indeed published “Cascade-Based Attack Vulnerability on the U.S. Power Grid” in an international journal called Safety Science last spring. But Mr. Wang said he had simply been trying to find ways to enhance the stability of power grids by exploring potential vulnerabilities.

“We usually say ‘attack’ so you can see what would happen,” he said. “My emphasis is on how you can protect this. My goal is to find a solution to make the network safer and better protected.” And independent American scientists who read his paper said it was true: Mr. Wang’s work was a conventional technical exercise that in no way could be used to take down a power grid.

Sure looks that way to me, at least from my layman’s reading of the Science Direct abstract of “Cascade-based Attack Vulnerability on the US Power Grid.” Here it is. I pulled it straight off the Web:

The vulnerability of real-life networks subject to intentional attacks has been one of the outstanding challenges in the study of the network safety. Applying the real data of the US power grid, we compare the effects of two different attacks for the network robustness against cascading failures, i.e., removal by either the descending or ascending orders of the loads. Adopting the initial load of a node j to be Lj=[kj(Σmset membership, variantΓjkm)]α with kj and Γj being the degree of the node j and the set of its neighboring nodes, respectively, where α is a tunable parameter and governs the strength of the initial load of a node, we investigate the response of the US power grid under two attacks during the cascading propagation. In the case of α<0.7, our investigation by the numerical simulations leads to a counterintuitive finding on the US power grid that the attack on the nodes with the lowest loads is more harmful than the attack on the ones with the highest loads. In addition, the almost same effect of two attacks in the case of α=0.7 may be useful in furthering studies on the control and defense [emphasis added] of cascading failures in the US power grid.

Keywords: Cascading failure; Attack; US power grid; Critical threshold; Tunable parameter

If you want to see if this Chinese student is really publicly announcing an attack, buy a copy of the whole article. It’s available for purchase. Just click here.

I’m not saying that Chinese scientists aren’t plotting against us. I’m sure they are, just as I’m sure every country in the world is plotting against enemies real or imagined. I’m just saying that the truly malevolent are hardly likely to publish their plans for real attacks in established journals and offer to let anyone buy these plans for a few bucks.

How stupid do we think our adversaries are? How bleeping ignorant of science have we become that this embarrassingly revealing story hit the NYT?

The article itself contains some zinger observations. Here’s one.

Nart Villeneuve, a researcher with the SecDev Group, an Ottawa-based cybersecurity research and consulting group [said,] “Once you start interpreting every move that a country makes as hostile, it builds paranoia into the system.”

And here’s another:

Mr. Wang’s paper cites the network science research of Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a physicist at Northeastern University. Dr. Barabasi has written widely on the potential vulnerability of networks to so-called engineered attacks.

“I am not well vested in conspiracy theories,” Dr. Barabasi said in an interview, “but this is a rather mainstream topic that is done for a wide range of networks, and, even in the area of power transmission, is not limited to the U.S. system — there are similar studies for power grids all over the world.”

I don’t know what bothers me more. Arrogance, paranoia, or lousy research skills.


Pining for Cooling, Update: Peak Sawlog

23 March 2010

The Colorado mountains actually had some seriously cold days this winter. Some are hopeful that this’ll stall the pine beetles a bit. But no one I know expects significant relief. The weather has to go to thirty below and stay that way for five days or so to put a dent in pine beetle populations, and it has to do this year after year. We’ve had a good cold burst or two this year, but overall this hasn’t been happening enough to save the forests.

Since I’m sitting here looking at the little beetle holes in a piece of pine firewood, I thought I might as well update my 16 April 2009 post “Pining for Cooling”.

I just tossed that riddled chunk of proof into my fireplace confident that there’s a lot more just like it piled outside. That’s my good news. The bad news? It’s also a sign we continue to lose our forests. Worse yet, dying trees are not just a problem here in Colorado. It’s global.

For example, my original post elicited a couple of excellent comments from someone with firsthand experience of the pine beetle situation in Montana. Furthermore, a brief search of today’s Google news brought up a slew of articles on the damage to the forest industry in British Columbia.

Here’s one: “Business Suffers in British Columbia Over Mountain Pine Beetle Epidemic.”

This article succinctly explains the economic repercussions of the infestation: sawmill closings, higher lumber prices. reduced availability for all sorts of products.

Here’s another similar article from the Canadian press: “Pine Beetle to Have Continentwide Impact on Lumber Supply: Report.”

A third article points out the long term disadvantages as well as the short term advantages of lots of dead and dying trees:

“Eroding log quality, poorer conversion economics and shorter shelf life of the dead timber will all result in a much smaller B.C. industry in the future as a result of sawmill and plywood mill closures with significant and direct consequences expected for rural B.C. communities,” states the report.

“Peak sawlog availability and output is now forecast to occur within three to five years.”

Peak Sawlog. Yippee! Who thinks beyond five years? We’re home free!

More good news? One expert said that it was possible to mill wood that’d been dead for ten to twenty years.

Most Colorado trees are not going for expensive lumber though. Someone else is living in the time of Peak Sawlog. Here, we are living in the time of Peak Firewood. Finding pine beetle lumber from milled from Colorado casualties isn’t easy. This area, although thick with damaged, drying trees, has a Pine Beetle Lumber Gap.

Nice irony.

Of course, I am happy to have that pile of firewood. We have forestry friends who haul out dead trees, cut, and split them into firewood. They say that there’s at least a six year supply of dead trees close by. That’s six years of cozy fires to look forward to. Peak Firewood. I have nothing to worry about.

Then I click on a few links and wind up staring at a 15 Mar. 2010 article titled, strangely enough,“What’s Killing the Great Forests of the American West?” According to this report, one world-wide study

recently published in Forest Ecology and Management, reported that in a 20,000-square-mile savanna in Australia, nearly a third of the trees were dead. In Russia, there was significant die-off within 9,400 square miles of forest. Much of Siberia has warmed by several degrees Fahrenheit in the past half-century, and hot, dry conditions have led to extreme wildfire seasons in eight of the last 10 years. Russian researchers also are concerned that warmer, dryer conditions will lead to increased outbreaks of the Siberian moth, which can destroy large swaths of Russia’s boreal forest.

Harumpph! Leave it to those Russkies to become global warming advocates.


Ecosystem Modeling and the New Normal

22 March 2010

Despite knowing at least some of the reasons for our blindness, I still keep wondering when more people will look around and recognize that frugality, austerity, and quite possibly worse are the New Normal. For most of us, life in the United States will never get back to the self-indulgent, wasteful spree most of us still consider normal.

Right now most of us recognize glimmers, shards, pieces or the problems–for example, unemployment, stressed resources, higher prices, bureaucratic stagnation–but most of us still miss the interconnectedness of our situation. It’s not just politics. It’s not just overuse/misuse of the environment. It’s not just overpopulation. It’s not just this or that. Pretty much everything is closing in on us. Sooner or later, circumstances will force something closer to awareness upon us, but by then that will most likely come with actions far beyond the bitter blame and anger that one sees at Tea Parties and such.

For better or worse, I still hold that knowing is better than blaming, acting better than reacting. With that in mind, I planned a post on how populations respond when they exceed the carrying capacity of their surroundings.

Then I found a March 15, 2010 post on The Great Change. This blog entry offers excellent definitions and models of four types of reactions to overshoot, a condition now surrounding human organisms whether we want to recognize it or not.

Here’s the link:

Unlike the bacteria in a wine vat, people are clever, so I’m currently pointing to John Michael Greer’s catabolic collapse as our fate.


The Bears Are White

21 March 2010

Our April issue of Scientific American, a non-peer-reviewed magazine written by scientists for laymen, arrived yesterday. The editorial on page 53 begins with this line: “Humankind has fundamentally altered the planet. But new thinking and actions can prevent us from destroying ourselves.”

This depressed me for several reasons. First of all, while, like most people I know, I am convinced people are negatively affecting the planet, I know that an apparently growing number of people do not agree. Then there’s that second bit about “new thinking and actions.”

New thinking and reasoning? Unfortunately, I have absolutely no hope of that happening. Why? Because of comments like this one to the preview of this article on the Scientific American website: Here’s what someone posting as H2Ov said:

Fact: I did not read this article. I will not pay to support the worship of the progressive environmentalist conscience. Environmentalism is a religion not a science.
. . . .

Theory: Some time between 10,000 BC to 30,000 BC glacier ice tongues were reaching into what is now southern Missouri. Why don’t I know the date? Do you know of any one who was there to observe and record the event?

Opinion: No consistent direct scientific observation data is available to establish that any of the non-facts reported in the previous comments are not true.

To reject without reading was a mindset giveaway. So was the “pay to support” tidbit. Obviously public libraries are as suspect as science, but that’s not what interested me here. Reading this hardly atypical comment about how science is faith rather than method of inquiry and how facts are established only by personal observation, I started thinking about white bears in the north.

No, I’m not referring to whether or not they are endangered. I’m referring to Soviet neuropsychologist A. R. Luria’s pre-WWII experiments with Uzbekistani peasants. After presenting them with syllogisms, he decided they were unable to use standard logical inferences. Instead, they demanded first hand experience as proof, just as does this person posting a response on the SciAm site.

Specifically, I was recalling one of Luria’s most famous syllogistic questions: In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the far north and there is always snow there. What color are the bears?

Instead of cheerfully inferring from the givens, the peasants said things such as “You’ll have to ask someone who has been there.” From Luria’s viewpoint, the peasants’ refusal to accept the givens and their demand for personal experience showed they couldn’t use logic. Luria, like most college-educated types, labeled the peasants as intellectually deficient because they were unable–or unwilling–to accept standard logic and fulfill the standard expectations of those who habitually use standard logic.

Unfortunately for us college-educated types, something else might be going on here. The Web has some good discussions of what this might be.

Here’s one from Dr. Cosma Shalizi’s “A. R. Luria: The Neuropsychology of Praxis”:

It never crossed Luria’s mind, so far as I can tell, that a bunch of Russian academics, asking questions which clearly indicated that the Russians thought the Uzbeks were idiots, would meet with anything less than full and sincere cooperation. Consider the following dialogue (p. 112) with an illiterate peasant named Nazir-Said:

The following syllogism is presented: There are no camels in Germany. The city of B. is in Germany. Are there camels there or not?
Subject repeats syllogism exactly.
So, are there camels in Germany?
“I don’t know, I’ve never seen German villages.”
Refusal to infer.
The syllogism is repeated.
“Probably there are camels there.”
Repeat what I said.
“There are no camels in Germany, are there camels in B. or not? So probably there are. If it’s a large city, there should be camels there.”
Syllogism breaks down, inference drawn apart from its conditions.
But what do my words suggest?
“Probably there are. Since there are large cities, there should be camels.”
Again a conclusion apart from the syllogism.
But if there aren’t any in all of Germany?
“If it’s a large city, there will be Kazakhs or Kirghiz there.”
But I’m saying that there are no camels in Germany, and this city is in Germany.
“If this village is in a large city, there is probably no room for camels.”

Luria’s interpretation was that Nazir-Said had difficulty with hypothetical syllogistic reasoning, as opposed to more concrete inferences in practical situations, difficulties typical of those “whose cognitive activity was formed by experience and not by systematic instruction or more complex forms of communication” (p. 115). But it’s also easy to interpret this as Nazir-Said parrying the question with a perfectly valid, if enthymemic, syllogism (as it were: “Every large city has camels; B. is a large city; therefore B. has camels”), and then supporting his major premise with another valid syllogism (like: “Every large city has Kazakhs or Kirghiz; Kazakhs and Kirghiz always have camels; therefore every large city has camels”). The greater success of members of collective farms in “solving” the syllogisms might just reflect their greater willingness to cooperate with the Russians. In other words, there is a whole layer of issues here, involving the social relations between the scientists and their subjects, to which Luria turned a blind eye…

Here’s another useful set of observations from Swedish cognitive scientist Peter Peter Gärdenfors in “The Role of Expectations in Reasoning.” He points out that the question is “what is allowed as premises in an argument.” Different groups, according to Gärdenfors, have differing expectations:

After reading Shalizi and Gärdenfors, I’m finally beginning to recognize a few more reasons why the frantic efforts of scientists to warn the world have met with such truculent resistance. Those who espouse an unfettered free market are slick in using science to refute science. From what I can see, they are consciously deceiving others, unconsciously deceiving themselves, or something akin. Those types I understand, However, I wondered about those like H20v. I once thought such people were simply ignorant and would be easy to convince once they understood logical fallacies and such.

Now I no longer think that. I’d been pondering a post reviewing Wikipedia‘s the cognitive biases with regard to those who dismiss scientific findings, but now I see the hopelessness of that. That will not convince a person who reasons as does H20v, no matter how bright he/she may well be.

A bottom up approach is necessary rather than a top down of-course-the-scientific-method-is-valid approach. We need to begin with cultural, learned “expectations.” A friend of mine once said that the only way to argue with a fundamentalist Christian is to be able to quote scripture well. Apparently similar tactics are necessary to persuade those who say mankind cannot alter this planet. Unfortunately, time is already a bit short for that to work.

We are so doomed.