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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Why Do Climate Alarmists Dislike Climate Realist-Optimists So Much?

F. A. Hayek, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist in the Austrian tradition, provided a possible answer to the question posed in the title. Although Hayek (1899-1992) to my knowledge had nothing to say about the climate controversy, his views on macroeconomics met with a similar critical attitude from those who practiced economics at a level far, far removed from individual action. He too was called a science denier, in this case, economic science. Here's what he said when contrasting the method of the natural sciences of "simple phenomena" with the methods of social and other sciences of "complex phenomena" (transcribed from an interview at 33:00):

All the things I have stressed--the complexity of phenomena in general, the unknown character of the data, and so on--really much more points out limits to our possible knowledge than our contributions which makes specific predictions possible. This incidentally [is] another reason why my views have become unpopular. Conception of scientific method became prevalent during that period [the 1930s, when he worked on his "pure theory of capital"] which valued all scientific theories from the nature of specific predictions at which it would lead. Now somebody who pointed out that specific predictions which it could make were very limited and that at most it could achieve what I sometimes call "pattern predictions," or predictions of the principle, seemed to the people who were used to the simplicity of physics or chemistry very disappointing and almost not science. The aim of science in that view was specific prediction, preferably mathematically testable, and somebody who pointed out that when you applied this principle to complex phenomena, you couldn't achieve this seemed to the people almost to deny [!] that science was possible. Of course my real aim was that the possible aims must be much more limited once we've passed from the science of simple phenomena to the science of complex phenomena. And there people bitterly resented that I would call physics a science of simple phenomena, which is partly a misunderstanding because the theory of physics [runs?] in terms of very simple equations. But that the active phenomena to which you have to apply it may be extremely complex is a different matter.... [On the other hand, in "intermediate fields" such as biology and the social sciences] their complexity becomes, I believe, an absolute barrier to the specificity of the predictions that we can arrive at. Until people learn themselves that they cannot achieve these ends, they will insist trying and think somebody [who] believes it can't be done is just old-fashioned and doesn't understand modern science. 

Monday, September 20, 2021

Global Warming and Intuition

I recently was asked whether the proposition that a "dramatic increase" in CO2 since industrialization could cause worrisome global warming was "intuitive" or not. My interlocutor wanted simply a yes or no answer. But I replied that I couldn't answer either yes or no because, in my view, the question had contestable if not incorrect premises. For the same reason, the question "Have you stopped beating your wife?" is widely regarded as unfair. It's called a loaded question.

I pointed out that whether the CO2 increase is properly called "dramatic" is at least contestable. The descriptor is subjective. The increase from both natural and human causes since 1850--roughly 300 to 400+ parts per million) amounts to about one-third; at times long ago CO2 was many times higher than it is today, and fauna and flora flourished--we are their descendants. Princeton physicist William Happer says that according to geological standards we are in a "CO2 drought."

I also noted that the question implicitly assumes a highly oversimplified notion of "the climate," as if it were one unified thing and only two or three things mattered: CO2, which is only 0.04 percent of the atmosphere; water vapor; and global average temperature, a statistical construct compiled in part by using a noisy surface-temperature record. (The computer models that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC] relies on have badly overpredicted warming at every turn. They can't even predict the past!)

Since the day I was asked that question, I've thought a lot about how else I might have answered it. The word intuition is interesting. Consider the relationship between CO2 and the climate. A person who knew nothing about those two things, when asked what his intuition was about the effect of a dramatic increase in CO2, might well reply, "Since I know nothing about CO2 or climate, I have no intuition at all. How could I?" If you can't see the reasonableness of that answer, imagine you were asked to intuit what would happen to a beaker of water with the addition of hafnium (Hf), which by stipulation you've never heard of. (I hadn't until I wrote this post.) Would the water freeze, boil, overflow with foam, or do nothing? How could you possibly have an intuition about that? And what would it be worth if you did? You could guess, but that's not the same thing.  

The value of a person's intuition about anything depends on how much he knows. Or so it seems to me.

Here's another thing. If someone intuits that a rise in CO2 would cause the earth to warm, that is not terribly informative because it leaves open the question of magnitude and consequences. How much will the earth warm, and--importantly--would that magnitude of warming help, hurt, or be neutral for human beings? In other words, someone could answer yes to the question without being very informative at all.

Intuition without good information isn't worth a wooden nickel. At best it's a starting point for an honest inquiry.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

CO2 and Global Cooling

If CO2 is implicated in global warming, not in its own right, but because it ​indirectly ​​leads to more water vapor, the dominant greenhouse gas, which amplifies what would otherwise be minor warming, then it could just as reasonably be implicated in global cooling, or at least reduced warming, because the resulting water vapor could condense into clouds, which reflect the sun's incoming radiation--preventing them from reaching the earth's surface​ and then being absorbed by the greenhouse gases​. (Scientists agree that clouding is highly complex and hasn't been captured by the climate computer models relied on by climate alarmists. See this from the American Chemical Society, which is in the climate alarmist camp.) 

This is an important point. According to alarmists, CO2 by itself is not the problem. The problem is the amplification by water vapor. But what if reduction is a possibility? Scientists don't know enough about clouding to regard it as unimportant. (Matt Ridley has a good discussion of this in this video.)

Similarly, the data from observations consistently show that the computer models overestimate the climate's sensitivity to changes in CO2. (See the Ridley video.)

So why the obsession with CO2? Renee Cho gives the answer at the Columbia (University) Climate School website: "while we have no way to control water vapor, we can control CO2." 

Controlling CO2 of course means controlling us.

Friday, September 17, 2021

TGIF: Get Rich Quicker!

"I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” --John Stuart Mill, 1828

We mustn't let the wrongdoing of politicians and bureaucrats blind us to the good things going on in the world. Outside the political realm, many things are doing pretty darn well. The long-term trends for many indicators have been positive for the last couple of centuries. Short-term disturbances, most often the result of political mischief, are temporary, and the progress resumes when the politicians loosen their grip or people find ways to ignore them. Regardless of the source, the data agree. This is not controversial stuff.

But make no mistake: this is not a recommendation for complacency. On the contrary, an outrageous number of people have been left out of the improvement, and that is a crime. We should want them to catch up. But, it has been wisely said, "You can’t fix what is wrong in the world if you don’t know what’s actually happening.

So what is actually happening? To begin with, wealth, real per capita income, per capita consumption, etc. have been expanding along with the world's population. Poverty is vanishing. (While more people are a good thing, population growth has slowed, and as people get richer and have fewer kids, the population may well decrease a bit.) As Matt Ridley, "the rational optimist," says, "Over the last 25 years 137,000 people have been lifted out of extreme poverty every day." (See his video "Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know" and the book it draws on.)

According to the Guardian, "Global poverty has seen a spectacular decline since the 1960s – when about 80% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty. Today that number has been reduced to nearer 10%, with hundreds of millions of people removed from the extremes of hardship."

In other words, Ridley writes, "The rich get richer, but the poor do even better."

Most people have no idea this has happened. In fact many think poverty is increasing. Young people are especially prone to this misconception.

Throughout the world, life expectancy is increasing, and infant/child mortality is falling. "Estimates suggest that in a pre-modern, poor world, life expectancy was around 30 years in all regions of the world..., according to Our World in Data. "Since 1900 the global average life expectancy has more than doubled and is now above 70 years. The inequality of life expectancy is still very large across and within countries. In 2019 the country with the lowest life expectancy is the Central African Republic with 53 years, in Japan life expectancy is 30 years longer.... The United Nations estimate a global average life expectancy of 72.6 years for 2019 – the global average today is higher than in any country back in 1950."

As for kids: "Over the last two centuries all countries in the world have made very rapid progress against child mortality. From 1800 to 1950 global mortality has halved from around 43% to 22.5%. Since 1950 the mortality rate has declined five-fold to 4.5% in 2015. All countries in the world have benefitted from this progress."

This is all great news, and many other positive trends could be cited, including consumption as compared with the number of hours worked, crop production, planetary greening, health, lessening violence, leisure time, resource abundance, the pace of innovation, and hospitableness of the planet.

Why is this happening? In a word, liberalization. (Of course I mean liberal in the classical Adam-Smith/Mises/Hayek/Rothbard sense.) Liberalism is far from complete anywhere, but in many places, including the developing world, people are freer, if not in political terms, then in earning-a-living terms, than they previously have been. That gives greater scope to entrepreneurship and ingenuity, which Julian Simon called "the ultimate resource." (So-called natural resources are not natural at all.) The globalization of trade, even when governments tamper with it, is part of this. "The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market," Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations. In other words, the more people around the world who, guided by market prices, are free (or freer) to choose their work and trade with others wherever they are, the better. Specialization and the market's law of comparative advantage, which has been dubbed "the most elusive proposition," make people better off.

This suggests why too many others have lagged behind. They lack essential liberty. And when people lack liberty, including private property, they will also lack significant and just economic growth, that is, growth without government privilege.

A couple of billion people in the developing world lack modern fuels and electricity. This kills such people prematurely, among other reasons, because they cook and heat their homes with wood and animal excrement, which create deadly indoor air pollution. They lack access to modern cheap, reliable, and potentially clean energy (that is, fossil fuels) because their governments create obstacles and arrogant Western politicians egged on by rich social activists block their access--without justification but much irony--in the name of protecting the planet.

That is a crime. So as I said at the start, the good things going on should not make us complacent. Today a large number of Westerners in effect tell the developing world: "Too bad for you, but we can't allow you to reach our standard of living. We like just the way you are." So they want to pull up the ladder.

Let us hope that the growing libertarian (that is, true liberal) movement will make a special effort to encourage the people of the developing world to tell the Western elites and their own rulers to get the hell out of the way. The people don't need to get rich quick; they need to get rich quicker!

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?