Sunday, 6 August 2017

Why Greens Are Probably Hindering The Green Revolution


You've probably heard the one about being on the camping trip and being faced by a ferocious bear. As illustrated in the above image; to survive, you don't have to run faster than the bear, you just have to run faster than the slowest member of the group.

But what if you cared about the group because it comprises a family unit, where you love each and every member? Then your concern would be that every member of the group could outrun the bear. Again, despite different priorities, the same maxim still holds - the survival of your family in one piece is contingent not on the fastest runners but on the slowest runner.

There's a version of this wisdom in economics - it's called Liebig's law - and it basically says that the growth or success or quality of something is not contingent on its strongest components but its weakest one. It's often stated in the form of "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link", and is applied in economic theory to speak of, for example, a business's growth being potentially retarded by its most significant impediments to development (faulty machinery, inadequate premises, failure to meet government-mandated green targets, to name just three examples).

You may have noticed that out of my three examples, two are within the hands of the business (to the greatest degree) and the third is not. A business can be hamstrung by a government's green targets and that can be the difference between being solvent and going under, or (invisibly to the naked eye) never becoming a business in the first place. You see, most green initiatives don't just impede extant businesses; they impede all those businesses in prospect that never became businesses because of the regulations.

Liebig's law is a fairly reliable rule of thumb, but it doesn't wholly factor in the extent to which adaptability occurs in very dynamical processes. When misapplied it can be as misjudged as the assertion about robots stealing our jobs based only on a short-sighted inability to conceive of the future jobs that are currently not jobs.

So, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link if human development is in any way comparable to a chain full of links - but it isn't. Applying this to Liebig's barrel (see below), human progression is not like having a fixed barrel with staves of unequal length limited by the shortest stave, it is like a barrel that is continually built larger to accommodate the continually increasing volume of liquid contained, where liquid here is comparable to economic growth.
 
 
In this paper, Indur Goklany examines the worldwide trends, and shows that deaths resulting from extreme weather conditions like tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and droughts have actually declined by 95% since the 1920s (see graph below) - totally undermining the claim that the frequency of global catastrophes are causally linked with climate change.

The principal cause of this huge century-long diminution of deaths has not been closely ascribable to any Green movement - it has been the solid, consistent process of market-led improvements of technology and stronger economic infrastructures. The computer and the mobile phone have done infinitely more to save the earth's natural habitat than any group of people from Greenpeace ever have or ever will.

 

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Trying To Solve An Age-Old Puzzle Of Humanity

With Venezuela in chaos, and with the recent calls for Jeremy Corbyn to publically apologise for his insanely short-sighted endorsement of Hugo Chavez, it would seem like an obvious thing for Corbyn to admit he’s been a fool and repudiate his former beliefs. But of course, we know that’s not going to happen: there is about as much chance of that happening as there is of Diane Abbott being asked to present the numbers round on Countdown.


This is, of course, one of the age-old puzzles of humanity - why human beings are so terribly beset by confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace information that supports your beliefs and reject information that contradicts them) and so intransigently irrational even when presented with good reasons that they are wrong about things. I’ve thought about this in the past, and I think the reason is twofold.

The first reason is that our biological evolution has resulted in our being very flawed creatures. Our evolutionary legacies are seen broadly across our behaviour, because they are vestiges of our past. The evolution of the eye has left us with a large blind area in the middle of the retina. Our prurience is the result of our sexual past.  Our long spine and susceptibility to back pains and injuries are the result of our quadruped ancestry. Our wisdom teeth are a result of our once having bigger jaws.

Plus our fear of the dark, our blushing, our sneezing, our hairs standing up, our goose bumps, our reactions to moving objects, our trepidation at wild animals, and our behavioural similarities with other primates closest to us in origin, all of these show that we are a medley of inherited ineptitudes, built for the Savannah. 

The second reason is that our cognition is an evolved phenomenon just like all our other evolved traits, and the kind of reasoning (or lack of) we are complaining about when Corbyn won’t change his mind about Venezuelan socialism is not the kind of cognition that we’ve optimally evolved.

Our biggest selection pressures on survival were much more about group symbiosis and cooperation than trying to solve lateral and complex problems. Things like confirmation bias and other general irrationalities are probably bootstrapped by powerful underlying survival legacies that stretch out across our evolutionary past.

Consequently, although this might seem counterintuitive at first, it’s probably largely true that the kind of habits of human thinking that best helped us survive in tribes with an in-group mentality are also the kind of habits that don’t serve us well when it comes to abstract reasoning and intellectual discourse. To be smart you have to unlearn as well as learn.

One would think that in an evolutionary game of survival, mistaken thoughts would disadvantage us - after all, failure to process facts and truths accurately can cost you your life if a predator is lurking. But maybe that is to uncover the answer - our evolution has primed us for over-simplistic analyses precisely because our brains are designed by natural selection to form patterns of causality that once upon a time aided us in survival. 

This has been demonstrated in studies of brain states, where neurological analyses have shown how our brains naturally become excited when they interface with patterns, harmony, beauty, and symmetry - it seems we are primed to place a higher qualitative value on pattern over non-pattern and beauty over ugliness.

But there is a price to pay. Suppose you're a distant ancestor still making sense of the world - you will gain by false positives, but you are liable to lose a lot if you get it wrong. A rustling in the bushes may be the wind, but it may be a predator. It's more costly to assume it's a predator and find out it's the wind than to assume it's the wind and find out it's a predator.

So over the years we have been primed for false positives - to sense potential danger, patterns and breaks from normalcy, and ascribe them to something causal or deliberate or predatory, even when such things are not there.

As well as that, it has been useful for us to evolve mechanisms for thinking simplistically. Intellection has served us well in rising to great heights as a species, but thinking simplistically means humans too fondly look to pigeon-hole things into black and white, with a primary focus on right or wrong and true or false, without understanding or considering the complex areas of grey in between.

When you combine that with the aforementioned tendency to see patterns when none are there, and the tendency for tribalism and in-group mentality, you can see how susceptible humans are to falling into bad thinking habits.

Once you combine all that with two other effects; the Dunning-Kruger effect (overestimating your own competence in reasoning) and the illusion of explanatory depth (believing you know more of the complex, finer details of a situation than you actually do) it is fairly easy to see why humans are constantly getting so much wrong, and why even when presented with good reason to change their mind, it’s quite unlikely that they will. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Please Excuse Me If I Don't Listen Up!


"And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market." Naomi Klein

This is one of most widely circulated quotes I've seen about the climate change debate since the Internet began, and it is from one of the most vociferous mouthpieces on this subject, Naomi Klein. It's an opinion that's gathered a lot of momentum over the years - that once you admit that man-made climate change is a real thing you are compelled to be on the side of the climate change alarmists and endorse the same political policies they endorse.

The confusion here is in mistaking scientific truths for political truths. They are not the same, and just because we may happen to agree on the scientific truth of a situation does not mean that we have to agree on the politics. Scientifically, you and I may both agree that an electric fence energiser converts electromagnetic power into a high voltage pulse, but that doesn't mean we will agree if you tell me you think the state should pay for every house to have one fitted around everybody's house in the country.

My thinking your nationalised electric fence policy is a bad use of resources wouldn't make me an electricity-denier - and similarly just because we may disagree on your political policies to tackle climate change, it doesn't mean I'm a climate change-denier.

Similarly, just because I think your sugar tax policies and your minimum alcohol pricing policies are oppressive and lazy-minded, that doesn't mean I deny that too much sugar and alcohol are bad for you. It simply means I am very dissatisfied by your attempts to tackle these issues, or I'm unsatisfied that these are even issues that need satisfying by legislation.

This kind of opprobrium was prominent recently when Donald Trump pulled out of the climate agreement - everyone accused him of being irresponsible in not caring about the state of our planet. Perhaps he is, or perhaps he isn't, but either way - pulling out of the Paris agreement is not enough to go on, because anyone can reject it on the basis that they don't think it is trying to solve the problems in the right way, or that in some case their proposed solutions are actually worse than the problems they are trying to solve.

If I were a political leader, I would reject Naomi Klein-isms, the Paris agreement, and all manner of other movements and coalitions that are so evidently failing the tests before them. Because what none of the aforementioned do is get the basics right, regarding things like demonstrating how their policies will have a net positive effect on tackling climate change; predicting the effects of climate change alongside the effects of market progression; demonstrate that the costs of these policies are lower than the costs of climate change; and make any mention of all the opportunity costs associated with their policies and why they are worth sacrificing for this movement.

For all of those reasons and more, they are not giving us even a smidgen of a reason to believe they should be listened to on these matters.

Note: For further reading, my four part series on climate change attempts to address all the questions and answers that the alarmists have failed to address.  
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