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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Constitution Day, September 17



Celebrate Constitution Day tomorrow by buying and reading America's Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited. Dedicated to the constitutionalists of all parties, the book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, I argue it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, I suggest that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why I Write

I write to improve my understanding and to entertain myself. If what I write does the same for others, that's icing on the cake.

Friday, September 10, 2021

TGIF: Bad Sign?

When I see four of those yard signs on my morning walk, I chuckle. If I'm in a mischievous mood I might someday suggest a couple of memes that the owners might add.

I could embrace all of those memes, but not without some qualification and in several cases, a good deal of qualification. But that's for another day.

Today I want to focus on numbers 5 and 6: "Science Is Real" and "Water Is Life." I wouldn't comment on these were it not for their ominous implications for government policy. Some people are ready to spend trillions of other people's money because of what they suppose those sayings mean.

They are true of course, but they are misleading because they are incomplete. (Would many people actually deny that science per se is unreal or that water is essential to life?)

My suggestion to the sign owners would be, first, to take a Sharpie and squeeze in these words after "Science Is Real": "But Scientists Are Human Beings Too." Not every passerby will get it, but some may interpret it correctly to mean that scientists, despite the white lab coats, are subject to the same imperfections as other people: among them, bias, vanity, greed, insecurity, what Herbert Spencer called "the pressing desire for careers," and a wish to protect the psychological investment that can result when one spends a good deal of time mastering a subject.

The climate row provides a good example here. If one comes to think of oneself as having mastered climatology, one hardly wants to hear other scientists with impeccable credentials say that "the climate" is too complex a subject to be mastered by anyone. In fact, complex doesn't even begin to describe it. As the scientists who are climate optimists point out to the alarmists, "the climate" is not a thing but a mind-blowing collection of many moving and interrelated parts, the behavior of which is inherently unpredictable and maybe beyond complete comprehension.

That such a complex phenomenon might boil down--sorry about that--to just the CO2 and (noisy) average-global-temperature records dating back, say, a century is something that even we lay people can balk at. As the climate scientist Patrick Frank of Stanford University--who has demonstrated the error-riddled nature of the IPCC's computer models, which cannot even predict the past--wrote in Skeptic magazine, "Earth's climate is warming and no one knows exactly why. But there is no falsifiable scientific basis whatever to assert this warming is caused by human-produced greenhouse gases because current physical theory is too grossly inadequate to establish any cause at all."

Want to hear it from a physicist who was in Barack Obama's energy department?  Here's Steven Koonin, author of the new book Unsettled? What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn't, and Why It Matters: "[T]he science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it."

Okay, then how about a leftist physicist? Canadian Denis Rancourt: "There are more unknown and unforeseeable CO2 evolution feedback mechanisms [than] there are climate research institutes on the planet."

This leads to my second proposed addition to the sign. After "Water Is Life" I would suggest adding, "And So Is Carbon Dioxide!" Just as all living things depend on water, so all living things depend on CO2. Plants devour it with gusto, so even we carnivores love CO2 because it feeds the plants that nourish our animal food sources.

To drive the point home: "At the current level of ~400 ppm [parts per million] we still live in a CO2-starved world. Atmospheric levels 15 times greater existed during the Cambrian Period (about 550 million years ago) without known adverse effects." (Emphasis added. Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change “Executive Summary,” Climate Change Reconsidered II: Physical Science, 2013. For details see this chart going back 600 million years for details.)

Moreover, "CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere 'greens' the planet and helps feed the growing human population." (See this world map illustrating the global greening that the increasing CO2 seems to be producing, much of it in the Amazon rainforest.) Everyone knows that operators of greenhouses pump in CO2 (not "carbon") to get bigger plants because it isn't a pollutant--it is plant food.

So which office does CO2 go to to get its reputation back?

Friday, September 03, 2021

TGIF: Why Do We Question Motives?

I don't know if we're in the heyday of questioning the motives of people we disagree with rather than simply rebutting them--character assassination, that is--but it's got me wondering why this is such a popular pastime these days. Think about how often we hear people's motives impugned--even when they have impressive credentials--because of their positions on COVID-19, climate change, nutrition, racial policy--you name it. Considering motivation is not a bad thing per se, but too often it substitutes for a counterargument. That's a confession of vacuity.

To oversimplify a bit, let's assume that motives come in two flavors--virtuous and vicious. If someone defends a proposition that is easily refuted or has been repeatedly refuted before, we might wonder why that person defended it. Inquiring into the possible motives seems appropriate, but not before the claim is shown to be poor. Of course motives can vary widely, from money to vanity. It's all too human a temptation to become invested in a position prematurely and then stick to it even after doubts have set in. No one is immune, not even natural scientists, medical experts, so-called public servants. People have livelihoods, reputations, and careers to look after. The mark of maturity is the ability to resist temptation.

On the other hand, if someone offers a serious and solid case for a proposition--one that deserves to be taken seriously--the early resort to motive-questioning ought to strike us as highly suspicious. This is especially so if the speculation about motives precedes any serious attempt to rebut the case. If the first salvo a critic launches is directed at motive, I have to assume that the critic can't think of anything else to say. That obviously speaks volumes.

Really, why should the speaker's motives or financing source matter? Who cares if the research was backed by someone with a horse in the race if the findings are solid? A good case is a good case, full stop. (See how physicist and climate optimist Willie Soon handles this issue.) Two kinds of financially self-interested people would want to finance supporting research: those who insincerely hold their position and want to lie to the public, and those who sincerely hold their position and want the truth to be disseminated. You can't tell who is who merely by the mere fact that they've financed scientists to provide evidence. Why wouldn't, say, a producer of fossil fuels want to defend his products? What counts is the quality of that evidence and the theoretical explanation of it.

It's worth noting that people who seek government grants should be as open to motive-questioning as those who get their backing from business interests. Government officials for obvious reasons are apt to be more attracted to scientific research that seems to justify their expansion of power than to research that doesn't. It's the nature of the beast we call the state. Some researchers--they're human after all--can be expected to act accordingly. Catastrophists of various stripes, by the way, ask us to believe something highly implausible: that people who know that an existential threat is looming pay other people to do bogus research that says otherwise for money. Really?

Even if an interested party's case should fail we can still ask: who cares about motives? Talking about motives in these circumstances is a distraction, not to mention a low blow. Many past advocates have made strong arguments that were eventually shown to be wrong. Were all of them corrupt? Of course not. It should take more than a mistaken conclusion to presume corruption.

If you want to see character assassination on steroids, recall the Obama-era attempt to get the Justice Department to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)--which was written with reference to organized crime--to gag people who reject climate-change alarmism, not just business firms but also think tanks and scientists. The grounds? "Knowingly deceiving on climate risk." Other scientists have been subject to campaigns to get them fired. You can't make this stuff up.

Observe the current controversies. For example, even highly credentialed people who reject the climate alarmists' analyses are likely to be accused of being not just financed but corrupted by the fossil-fuel industry or by ideological think-tanks. Qualified epidemiologists and economists who questioned the hysteria and dominant policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic were accused of being libertarians (!) in the pay of wealthy benefactors. Why isn't it enough to rebut their arguments? is it because a rebuttal wouldn't do enough damage? Accusing someone of corruption--even when that accusation couldn't withstand the slightest examination--might silence the target, as well as others of like mind, because no one likes being called, in effect, an intellectual prostitute or zealot. The chilling effect is well-known. Luckily not everyone is deterred, but we know that many are.

I want to be fair. It seems to me that the preference for character assassination over refutation is more common among what I'll call the various "consensus catastrophe" caucuses than among their critics. I can't say it never happens on the other side, but it seems exceedingly rare. I think a reason for this is that today's consensus catastrophe caucuses, such as those regarding climate change and COVID-19, rest on fragile foundations. They rely on well-rebutted scientific claims and a manufactured consensus. The most famous case of a manufactured consensus is the much-debunked claim about the 97 percent of climate scientists. The big questions of course are: 97 percent of what population exactly and what do they agree on exactly? But invoking that big number works; it can be used to accuse even respected scientists of denying science. If you can't refute your opponents, all you need to do is portray them as going against virtually all the authorities. To many people, that just sounds bad. "What's wrong with that guy?" (Ignaz Semmelweis and Alfred Wegener, both of whom were proved to be correct, were also viciously attacked for denying the consensuses of their day regarding puerperal fever and continental drift respectively.)

Each time I hear a consensus invoked against opponents with arguments and evidence, I think of Chico Marx's famous line: "Who you gonna believe: me or your own eyes?" I also think of Einstein's reported response when told that 100 intellectuals had put their name to a book arguing that the theory of relativity was wrong: “Why 100 authors? If I were wrong, one would have been enough."

If the first words out of a critic's mouth include "consensus" or "motive," I don't want to hear anything else he has to say. Science--indeed, thinking!--isn't about confirming consensuses. It's about testing them against evidence. No one's character should be questioned merely because he expresses doubt about even a widely believed scientific or other proposition, especially when it has the potential to impinge on individual liberty and well-being.

Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Really?

Someday our descendants will laugh with embarrassment at the people today who pore over weather records prepared to proclaim an existential threat from a fraction-of-1-degree rise in the average global temperature over any previous year "on record," that is, unless the government spends trillions of dollars on a program of virtually totalitarian control of our lives. "On record" actually means "in the last century and a half" because that's how far back "the record" goes. And that, by the way, roughly coincides with the beginning of the end of the Little Ice Age in 1850, which continues to this day. The earth of course is 4.5 billion years old.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Who Are the Real Climate Change Deniers?

Seems to me that the real climate change deniers are those who say that but for human beings, the climate would not change or change very much.

Friday, August 27, 2021

TGIF: Safety Can Be Hazardous to Our Health

Kudos to Glenn Greenwald, a rare leftist voice of sanity on so many issues, for opening his recent article this way:

In virtually every realm of public policy, Americans embrace policies which they know will kill people, sometimes large numbers of people. They do so not because they are psychopaths but because they are rational: they assess that those deaths that will inevitably result from the policies they support are worth it in exchange for the benefits those policies provide. This rational cost-benefit analysis, even when not expressed in such explicit or crude terms, is foundational to public policy debates — except when it comes to COVID, where it has been bizarrely declared off-limits.

He goes on to write that the "quickest and most guaranteed way to save hundreds of thousands of lives with policy changes would be to ban the use of automobiles, or severely restrict their usage to those authorized by the state on the ground of essential need (e.g., ambulances or food-delivery vehicles), or at least lower the nationwide speed limit to 25 mph." (Watch the video version.)

But no one advocates any of those restrictions, and anyone who did would be dismissed as a fringe character. But why, considering how many lives would surely be saved (1.3 million worldwide)? It's not because opponents don't care about human life; it's because people understand that the costs in so many ways would be far worse the benefits:

It is because we employ a rational framework of cost-benefit analysis, whereby, when making public policy choices, we do not examine only one side of the ledger (number of people who will die if cars are permitted) but also consider the immense costs generated by policies that would prevent those deaths (massive limits on our ability to travel, vastly increased times to get from one place to another, restrictions on what we can experience in our lives, enormous financial costs from returning to the pre-automobile days). So foundational is the use of this cost-benefit analysis that it is embraced and touted by everyone from right-wing economists to the left-wing European environmental policy group CIVITAS....

Exactly so. Once you put safety not just first but above everything else you're able to come up with the most insane proposals for reshaping society. Heaven help us from those who are concerned only about safety.

Risk is integral to life, social life included. As Thomas Sowell puts it, there are no solutions, only trade-offs--you can't do only one thing. So each of us does cost-benefit analyses all the time in everyday life. As individuals we could be completely protected from other people simply by living as hermits. But few choose to do so for entirely understandable reasons. Instead we live among others, taking reasonable precautions. Indeed, some of the most admired places to live are the most densely populated places on earth. We accept the costs because the the benefits dwarf them--so much so that we don't normally have to explain it to other people.

But some people forget to apply this common sense in particular matters. Greenwald's target is draconian COVID-19 policy: "It is now extremely common in Western democracies for large factions of citizens to demand that any measures undertaken to prevent COVID deaths are vital, regardless of the costs imposed by those policies." Yet, he continues, "It is impossible to overstate the costs imposed on children of all ages from the sustained, enduring and severe disruptions to their lives justified in the name of COVID.

"However, "The latest CDC data reveals that the grand total of children under 18 who have died in the U.S. from COVID since the start of the pandemic sixteen months ago is 361 — in a country of 330 million people, including 74.2 million people under 18."

Children, of course, are not the only ones who have suffered from lockdowns and lesser restrictions on their activities.

Unfortunately, opponents of these blunt-instrument, liberty-violating approaches, such as the authors and signers of the Great Barrington Declaration, are smeared, if not as uncaring sociopaths, then as blind ideologues or sell-outs.

Greenwald also properly see a class conflict in how the COVID policy has affected people:

The richer you are, the less likely you are to be affected by these harms from COVID restrictions. Wealth allows people to leave their homes, hire private tutors, temporarily live in the countryside or mountains, or enjoy outdoor space at home. It is the poor and the economically deprived who bear the worst of these deprivations, which — along with not having children at all — may be one reason they are assigned little to no weight in mainstream discourse.

He emphasizes that "this is not an argument in favor of or against any particular policy undertaken in the name of fighting COVID. What it is, instead, is an attempt to highlight the pervasive and deeply misguided refusal to assign any costs to the harms caused by anti-COVID policies themselves."

Consider the "precautionary principle," the admonition that nothing should be allowed unless it's proven to be totally safe. Now think of where mankind would be today had our ancestors had adopted this principle. The human race would be considerably smaller. Has it ever occurred to its advocates that the precautionary principle cannot even pass its own test?

COVID is only the latest example of how the obsession with safety can be hazardous to our health. It is by no means the only one. The other most prominent case relates to fossil fuels and climate change. As I discussed recently, if the economic way of thinking--that is, the cost-benefit trade-off approach--informed the discussion of the environment and our place in it, that discussion would look very different. Why? Because people would realize that the elimination or radical reduction of fossil-fuel use worldwide literally would shorten billions of lives, and make the rest of them miserable. Even a small benefit from oil, gas, and coal would outweigh that cost. But in fact the benefits are immense.