Monday, December 27, 2010
Monday, December 20, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
A few days ago the New York Times published an article by Nicholas Wade "Anthropology a Science? Statement Deepens a Rift" describing an internal debate within anthropology.
Anthropologists have been thrown into turmoil about the nature and future of their profession after a decision by the American Anthropological Association at its recent annual meeting to strip the word “science” from a statement of its long-range plan. The decision has reopened a long-simmering tension between researchers in science-based anthropological disciplines — including archaeologists, physical anthropologists and some cultural anthropologists — and members of the profession who study race, ethnicity and gender and see themselves as advocates for native peoples or human rights.
During the last 10 years the two factions have been through a phase of bitter tribal warfare after the more politically active group attacked work on the Yanomamo people of Venezuela and Brazil by Napoleon Chagnon, a science-oriented anthropologist, and James Neel, a medical geneticist who died in 2000. With the wounds of this conflict still fresh, many science-based anthropologists were dismayed to learn last month that the long-range plan of the association would no longer be to advance anthropology as a science but rather to focus on “public understanding.”
Until now, the association’s long-range plan was “to advance anthropology as the science that studies humankind in all its aspects.” The executive board revised this last month to say, “The purposes of the association shall be to advance public understanding of humankind in all its aspects.” This is followed by a list of anthropological subdisciplines that includes political research.
The word “science” has been excised from two other places in the revised statement.
Note the construction of the paragraphs, which constitute the lead portion of the article: Wade sandwiches the discussion of a well publicized decade old controversy between two paragraphs devoted to the article's main point (the change of wording in the association's long-range plan). By referring to the earlier debate Wade documents the existence of significant divisions among anthropologists. By surrounding his description of the past incident with material about the current event, Wade links them together in the reader's mind. It is the juxtaposition of the two events that provide evidence of the supposed ongoing "tribal warfare" within Anthropology.
Individuals familiar with studies of how journalists construct their stories (see, for example, Tuchman's Making News: A Study in the Social Construction of Reality or Ericson's Visualizing Deviance: A Study of News Organization) will recognize some of the strategies Wade is deploying. First, there is the obvious emphasis on social division present in the "tribal warfare" reference. As captured in the well known journalistic homily, "If it bleeds, it leads" crime, deviance, violence, tension, etc. all attract readers. Or, stated another way, a story framed in terms of conflict and drama is more likely to make it past the editors desk than the same information framed in a less attention-grabbing format. Second, by providing context journalists help their readers understand the information being presented. Without that context, the event might be dismissed is trivial and irrelevant. Wade's reference to the earlier controversy is designed to provide that context. It lets the reader understand the current event not as an isolated event but, rather, as an outgrowth of a long-standing rift within the discipline.
Viewed in this light, we can pose a simple question: Has Wade described an actual feud within anthropology or has Wade, through the use of journalistic tropes, constructed a narrative that fundamentally misrepresents the situation? My vote is with the second alternative.
(Parenthetical note: I'm treating Wade as representative of a variety of reports, not as the sole origin of the problem. Indeed, other sources (see the articles in Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of Higher Education) reported the dispute earlier. I've focused on the Wade article for three reasons. First, a focus on the specific construction of an article is necessary to highlight the points I'm trying to make. Second, as a long standing and highly regarded science journalist for the NYTimes, I hold Wade to a higher standard. Third, Wade's characterization of the dispute is less nuanced than the Inside Higher Ed piece and more stereotypical and cartoonish than the Chronicle article.)
Individuals interested in a blow by blow account of how the controversy emerged and spread should read Anthropology, Science, and the AAA Long-Range Plan: What Really Happened and the series of related posts at Neuroanthropology. What you discover are the following:
1) There was no attempt to exorcise 'science' from the association's conception of anthropology. (Click here for a marked up version showing the original and more recent versions of the controversial text.) While the word 'science' was deleted from the long-range plan, the same meeting approved a document 'What is Anthropology' including the following text:
Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, anthropology draws and builds upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. A central concern of anthropologists is the application of knowledge to the solution of human problems.
The language here is quite inclusive -- covering natural science, social science and the humanities. Moreover, the committee's claim that the wording changes were really a matter of mundane housekeeping appears supported by the shift of another passage -- that dealing with the "application of knowledge to the solution of human problems" -- from the long-term plan to the 'What is Anthropology' document. Thus, in contrast to Wade's account of an internal putsch aimed at re-defining the discipline, the motives for the word change appear to have been boring and bureaucratic -- the updating of documents -- with no sinister intent.
2) The controversy spread mainly through articles, like Wade's, written by outsiders. It did not emerge organically from inside the discipline. The discussion became an intense focus in the blogging community only after articles about the feud appeared in the Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and other similar locations. The notable exception to this generalization is Peter Peregrine's email on behalf of the Society for Anthropological Sciences. However, the SAS appear to have based their understanding of what transpired at the AAA executive meetings entirely on the text of the long-range plan without knowledge of the 'What is Anthropology' document. In addition, there is the possibility that Peregrine was attempting to arouse a sense of outrage in order to boost membership in the SAS. If nothing else, he clearly saw the controversy as an opportunity for encouraging membership renewals.
3) There exist real divisions within anthropology -- and indeed within all social science. But they are neither as tidy nor as stable as Wade's warring tribes allusion suggests. For example, if you survey the range of online reaction to the controversy, virtually none of the comments invoke the Chagnon debate that Wade uses to frame the dispute. Rather than attempt to unpack the real divisions, Wade constructs an overly simplistic division between 'science' and everything else without ever defining science. Indeed, the whole controversy has played itself out that way. People are for or against the change in wording -- but few actually define what they mean by science. They are, in many ways, ships passing in the night.
In short, the current controversy tells us more about the state of contemporary science journalism than it tells us about anthropology. But, the title of the post is 'much ado about not much' and not the proper Shakespearean 'much ado about nothing' for a reason. The fact that these articles created such a stir is a sign of something -- I just don't think it is a sign of what Wade claims. In the same way that a psychologist will say that an affair is the result of marital breakdown rather than the cause, Wade's ability to stir up controversy is a manifestation of real divisions even if they are more complex and unacknowledged than he is aware.
Attempting to explain those divisions would make this (already long) post much, much longer. Suffice it to say that I think there are at least three major things going on:
1) A post-Kuhnian understanding of how scientific knowledge changes. I take this to mean both a) an appreciation that the production of scientific knowledge is rooted in social context (for example, that observation is theory-laden) and b) that scientific knowledge evolves from rather than evolves toward (i.e., that it moves away from theories with empirical problems rather than toward 'truth')
2) The legacy of the Science Wars of the 1990s between natural scientists and social constructionists over whether natural science is or is not just another belief system.
3) The organized chaos of modern methodological practice so brilliantly explicated by Andrew Abbott in Chaos of Disciplines. Challenging the accepted belief that knowledge is in a perpetual state of progress, Abbott contends that disciplines instead cycle around an inevitable pattern of core principles. New schools of thought, then, are less a reaction to an established order than they are a reinvention of fundamental concepts. This leads Abbott to characterize the social space of methodological practice as analogous to a city street grid. Thus, not only can researchers opt for recognizably different methodological practices (e.g., locate themselves at the intersection of different streets) but they can mistakenly think they are engaged in the same research practice (e.g., find themselves at the same intersection but only realize after much discussion that they arrived there by taking different paths and that those paths affect the meaning they ascribe to a particular research practice).
Anyone seriously attempting to understand the social dynamics within anthropology would need to start with a clear definition of science (is it a method? a body of knowledge? a form of reasoning? or what?) in light of the above considerations.
Monday, December 13, 2010
There is a lot going on here. On the one hand, American's perceive themselves as a generous people and, I think, that sensibility is reflected in the magnitude of the "should spend" allocation. On the other hand, there is a perception that the government is actually spending roughly double what they "should spend." This is remarkably consistent with a
Gallup poll documenting the belief that Uncle Sam wastes 50 cents on the dollar. This sentiment explains the effectiveness of the simplistic political rhetoric claiming it is possible to balance the budget by getting rid of waste, fraud and abuse. Finally, there is the implicit point that Klein constructed the graph to illustrate -- that American's would be willing to give more to foreign aid if they actually understood how little was currently being spent. I doubt that is true. Indeed, if the question were phrased differently I suspect you would get very different results. For example, asking Americans to estimate the amount of money actually spent on foreign aid rather than the proportion of the budget, would, I suspect, yield a number substantially lower than the actual dollars involved.
Friday, December 10, 2010
And, where there is a social division, there is likely to be a sociologist. Enter Tim Edensor and Steve Millington, two British sociologists, who have written 'Illuminations, Class Identities and the Contested Landscapes of Christmas' (Sociology 2009; 43; 103-121; DOI: 10.1177/0038038508099100). The abstract provides a nice summary of the article -- minus the interesting details.
In the last two decades, illuminating the outside of a house with multi-coloured lights has become a popular British Christmas practice, typically adopted within working-class neighbourhoods and thus producing a particular geography of illumination.This article explores how such displays have become a site for class conflict mobilized around contesting ideas about space, time, community, aesthetics and festivity, highlighting how the symbolic economy of class conflict moves across popular culture. We focus upon two contrasting class-making practices evoking conflicting cultural values. First, we examine the themes prevalent in negative media representations of Christmas lights, notably the expression of disgust which foregrounds the working-class stereotype, the `chav'. Second, we analyse the motivations of displayers, exploring how the illuminations are imbued with idealistic notions about conviviality and generosity.
Mark Greif, author of “What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation” had an essay in the NYT Review of Books draws on Bourdieu to examine similar themes. Here are some of the key passages:
“Distinction,” published in 1979, was an undisputed masterwork. In it, Bourdieu set out to show the social logic of taste: how admiration for art, appreciation of music, even taste in food, came about for different groups, and how “superior” taste was not the result of an enchanted superiority in scattered individuals.
Over several years in the 1960s, Bourdieu and his researchers surveyed 1,200 people of all classes and mined government data on aspects of French domestic life. .... The statistical results were striking. The things you prefer — tastes that you like to think of as personal, unique, justified only by sensibility — correspond tightly to defining measures of social class: your profession, your highest degree and your father’s profession.
The power of Bourdieu’s statistics was to show how rigid and arbitrary the local conformities were. .... Taste is not stable and peaceful, but a means of strategy and competition. Those superior in wealth use it to pretend they are superior in spirit. Groups closer in social class who yet draw their status from different sources use taste and its attainments to disdain one another and get a leg up. These conflicts for social dominance through culture are exactly what drive the dynamics within communities whose members are regarded as hipsters.
Monday, December 6, 2010
Globescan, an international public opinion research company best known for their Greendex project aimed at measuring sustainable consumption , just released the results of a global poll documenting interesting trends in concern about climate change. The following excerpts place those findings in a larger context.
The 26-country poll asked more than 13,000 people to rate the seriousness of a range of environmental problems including climate change. Results revealed that the proportion of those who rated climate change as a "very serious" problem fell from 61 per cent last year to 53 per cent this year, after many years of increasing concern.
Other findings from the poll show that the proportion of people across tracking countries who believe that "the dangers of climate change are exaggerated," has increased from 42 per cent in 2008 to 48 per cent this year.
Chris Coulter, the senior vice-president of GlobeScan, says the world is witnessing a North-South divide over climate change, with levels of concern remaining stable or growing in emerging economies and declining in Europe and North America.
"The combined effects of economic recession, the confusing results from last year's Copenhagen climate conference, and the controversy surrounding climate science seem to have shaken the belief of people in industrialised countries that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed," he says.
A more worrying shift, according to Hohnen, has been the recent assumption of the mainstream financial press that climate change is now unstoppable.
"Last week's Economist magazine led with the cover 'How to live with climate change'. After years of saying climate change was nothing to worry about, even conservative analysts now see that major changes have been put in train."
As this viewpoint becomes more widespread, it could have a dramatic impact on climate policy, Hohnen says.
"Rather than trying to stop or slow climate change, more efforts may now be put into adaptation. This means more sea dykes, weather-proofed buildings and intensive agriculture. To finance this, capital will be pulled back to reinforce local infrastructure and self defence measures. If this happens we will see profound implications for international trade and finance."
If governments do not come to an agreement in Cancun there is a danger that individual countries will go into what Paul Hohnen calls 'bunker mode', where rich countries increasingly invest in their own protection and reduce prospects for a global agreement.
"If a global deal isn't reached soon, where all countries do their share, voters in rich countries in the North are not going to agree to their tax money being used for climate change prevention in the South. While that may not be scientifically or ethically sound policy, it's not hard to imagine it becoming a popular political line. The irony will be that this will probably be first heard from former climate sceptics."
The two other big pieces of context? China is outpacing the US in climate mitigation efforts. In the past year, while US efforts to manage carbon were dying in Congress, China’s incentives for clean-energy development have been so abundant that the Obama administration threatened to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization branding the aid a violation of global trade rules.
Second, the US has set the negotiating bar at the current Cancun talks very high. This can be taken two ways, as recognition of the severity of the problem or as a crass political move designed to insure the current talks are labeled a failure. According to Todd Stern, the chief American climate change negotiator,
the United States was seeking a “balanced set of decisions” that makes measurable progress on the six issues now before the conference: emissions reductions, technology transfers, adaptation, verification, financing and forest preservation. The issues formed the core of the Copenhagen Accord negotiated last year, and an agreement that does not make comparable progress on all of them is not acceptable.
Given the fragile state of the negotiations, the declining public support in the western democracies and the tortured backstory associated with the development of current negotiating texts in each of the six areas, getting agreement on all six seems unlikely (to put it mildly). Whatever the reasoning, the practical outcome of such a position will probably lead to a perceived negotiating failure and reinforce the bunker mentality in which rich, relatively unaffected nations, invest large sums in mitigation efforts and the poor, more directly and immediately affected nations of the global south, are left on their own.
Whatever you think of the WTO, it is tangible proof that a binding global regime is possible. At some point in time, given the global nature of emerging environmental problems, countries will recognize the need for a similar global regime to deal with environmental matters. But, for the medium term, it seems like every country is going to be left on its own.
Saturday, December 4, 2010
Freudenburg and Gramling put the spill into the perspective of energy dependence, take us gracefully through technical details blurred by the popular press, grasp the local and national politics (offering some political detergents of their own along the way), and give the spill what will likely be its most masterful handling. The authors' years of work on oil drilling and the carbon economy get a dramatic payoff in this very timely book.
Freudenburg presented a lecture based on the book, Learning Lessons from Disaster? The BP Oil Spill and the Future of Energy in America on November 15 and the webpage has a link to a video of the lecture. Unfortunately, the 'rtsp' based link didn't work for me, but the folks at Santa Barabara were nice enough to provide this alternative http based link that did. The talk has four significant sections: 1)a brief discussion of the recently released findings from the Presidential Commission looking into the accident, 2) some basic background on oil, its formation, and the drilling process, 3) a discussion of risk and risk management and, in particular, an analysis of the extent to which BP's behaviours differ from those of other industry players, and ends with 4) a detailed history of US energy policy aimed at illuminating the question of why the US is in the position of drilling for oil in water more than a mile deep. While the effects of his health are evident (Freudenburg delivers the lecture sitting down), he remains the energetic and engaging speaker he always has been. There are reasons his undergraduate lectures frequently end with applause, and those reasons are clearly exemplified in this talk.
Finally, Freudenburg was honoured at Freudenfest 2010: a day long collaborative discussion and celebration of his contributions to sociology, environmental studies, and society held November 6, 2010, at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
The Freudenfest webpage includes a program of the events, powerpoint slides from the following presentations, and a gallery of images taken at the event.
*The Said and Unsaid: Disproportionality and How it is Supported through Discourse, Debra Davidson, Dept. of Rural Economy, University of Alberta
*Working with Bill, Robert Gramling
*Social Change in Natural Resource-Based Rural Communities: The Evolution of Sociological Research and Knowledge As Influenced by the Contributions of William E. Freudenburg, Richard S. Krannich, Dept. of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology, Utah State University
*Transcending Human Exemptionalism: Freudenburg's Sociology in Which Nature Matters, Raymond Murphy, University of Ottawa, Canada, and Riley Dunlap, Oklahoma State University, USA
*Resource Dependency and Diversity: From Findings to Metaphors (and Back Again?), Richard C. Stedman, Dept. of Natural Resources, Cornell University
*Political Science: The Intricacies of Activism Among Coastal Restoration Scientists, Lee Clarke, Rutgers University
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
1) Over at the Oil Drum they are declaring victory in the fight for recognition of peak oil and rolling out plans for a kinder and smaller internet presence.
For the past 5 years, The Oil Drum has been a home base for many high level discussions about the details and implications surrounding an early peak in global crude oil production as well as topics on society and energy in general. The entire site was started, and continued, by volunteers, in what might be described as a loose anarchy glued by social capital and a desire to puzzle solve the complexities surrounding energy depletion. Over time, on these pages, our contributing staff and especially the many readers who joined the discussions, have pushed the envelope in publicly analyzing what was/is one of the central issues of our time - the opportunities and constraints facing society during the upcoming energy transition.
In many ways our initial mission is over. The fact that oil depletion is real and urgent is no longer a 3+ standard deviation viewpoint (see recent IEA World Energy Outlook).
2) Meanwhile, Worldchanging has announced they are archiving the website and going out of existence by the end of the year.
We have some news.They will be missed.
Seven years ago, Alex Steffen and Jamais Cascio started Worldchanging with the intention of providing access to the tools, models and ideas for building a better future. They wanted to push the concept that solutions-based thinking could transform the debates about sustainability and social innovation. With a scrawny little blog, a brilliant crew of fellow travelers and a lot of moxie, an initial group of us set out to change how people think about (and prepare for) the future.
But all things change, and so it happens with Worldchanging. The organization is taking steps to close its doors and dissolve as a 501c3 nonprofit organization by the end of 2010. It is our goal to see the archive of work here maintained, though the form of that archive is still uncertain.
Why is this happening? Worldchanging readers were generous over the years and an important part of our ongoing operations, but we were never able to secure major foundation support, so Worldchanging relied most heavily on income generated from Alex Steffen’s speaking engagements (Alex gave more than 400 talks over the past five years) and the Worldchanging book. The strenuous travel schedule it takes to deliver that many talks, though, was unsustainable, both personally for Alex and in terms of the impact it had on Worldchanging’s ability to develop new work. It was clear we needed a new model if we were going to stay in operation.
Early this year a new board was brought on to reshape the organization and pursue a more traditional nonprofit development model (based more on grants, gifts and major fundraising drives), with many new board members recruited in just the last few months to help us re-imagine operations and launch these new plans. Unfortunately, despite everyone’s best efforts (and a successful October event), funding ran out before such a transformation could happen. Given the financial realities we faced, the board and staff have agreed that it is time to bring Worldchanging to a close as gracefully as possible.
Monday, November 29, 2010
(Warning: obscure sociology reference impending.) Simmel would love them. (Explanation of obscure reference: Simmel, the progenitor of formal sociology and what has subsequently become network analysis, was treated poorly by the German academic establishment -- in part because his lectures were so popular. Those lectures typically took the following structure: Look at thing A, Look at thing B, Look at thing C. Surprise A, B and C are really the same thing!)
That is the same general approach that West takes as part of this Yahoo Labs Big Thinker presentation exploring the scaling rules of cities, businesses and other things only discovered when you watch!
Unfortunately, the viewer doesn't display time, so I can't identify precisely where to find the interesting bits, ..... but somewhere between a fifth and a quarter into the talk you find this slide which is attached to an interesting observation:
a) there is a systematic relationship between the size of a biological organism and the amount of energy that it requires that b) remains the same over the entire 27 orders of magnitude of biological phenomenon (i.e., from below the cellular level to the blue whale). An increase in size of the system by 4 orders of magnitude requires only 3 orders of magnitude increase in energy input.
At about the 1/4 point, after talking about a number of other scaling relationships, Wests suggests that it is networks that underpin these relationships and the existence of the mathematical relations is a product of natural selection (which has optimized the design and selected for the most efficient) and the mathematics of network processes.
At about the 1/3 point, he notes that similar scaling processes occur not only when looking between species, but also when conceptualizing networks made up of the same object. Thus, the same principals that hold for a single tree also hold for the forest as a whole. Thus, for example when looking at all the different trees in a forest, there is a consistent relationship between the diameter of the trunk of a particular type of tree and the number of trees of that type in the forest.
He then turns to a discussion of growth -- based on the idea that incoming metabolized energy serves two functions a) the maintenance of existing cells and b) the growth of new cells. The first half of the talk, dealing with biological systems, is summarized in the following slide:
The central point is that the relationships are found in biology because natural selection has operated on the systems and selected for those which are optimized. Thus, the question for the second half of the talk becomes whether or not social systems show the same patterns. If they do, then they are likely sustainable. If they don't, problems are likely.
This slide, around the half way mark, summarizes the results of his empirical findings -- that social organization scales in terms of three different types of relationship rather than the single one characterizing biological systems.
And here, in contrast to biological processes that scale at a less than linear rate, we see the consequences of that aspect of social process that scales at a greater than linear rate. Thus, where biological systems that are large go slower than those that are small, social systems that are large operate at a pace that is faster than those that are small.
At this point, around 2/3 of the way through, it gets really interesting. In contrast to interpreting the exponential growth in terms of the standard Limits to Growth argument, West notes that you can 'reset' the initial conditions and, hence, modify the curve, through the process of social innovation. But, drum roll for the long awaited punchline,to do this and keep the system operating requires it to be 'reset' on a more and more rapid basis. In other words, there is a need not just for new innovation, but for more rapid and more fundamental innovation, as the system grows. This structure, like trying to run on a treadmill that is continuously accelerating and from which you will ultimately fall off, is unsustainable.
West closes with a discussion of corporations and the tension between infrastructure (governed by biological type scaling laws that are less than linear) and innovation (governed by scaling laws greater than one) and why companies, in contrast to cities, tend to die out.
There are lots of interesting parallels between West's argument and those of Tad Homer-Dixon and his notion of the ingenuity gap. Homer-Dixon argues that the fundamental problem we face is that the requirement for ingenuity is rising faster than our ability to supply it and, hence, there exists an ingenuity gap. I've always conceptualized the main driver behind the increased requirement as the increasing complexity, scale and fundamental nature of the problems we face. Or, in panarchy terms, the co-creation of increasingly higher-level (slower, larger scale) adaptive cycles. West provides a slightly different explanation for the increased requirement for ingenuity -- tracing it to the increasingly rapid need to 'reset' the growth curve.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
A tenet of modern fisheries science may be unfounded, suggests a study of how catches are affecting marine ecosystems. The finding has sparked a heated debate about how best to measure humanity's impact on the ocean.
A landmark study in 1998 found that we are 'fishing down the food chain' worldwide -- in other words, exhausting stocks of top predators such as cod before switching attention to smaller marine animals. This has since become accepted wisdom. But a study published in Nature today suggests that the indicator on which this claim is based -- 'mean trophic level' or MTL -- is severely flawed.
The authors of the 1998 paper have hit back, with one of them branding the latest research "completely invalid". But Trevor Branch, lead author of the Nature study and a fisheries scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, stands by the work. "At a global level we are not fishing down," he says. "The results are quite clear on that."
Branch says that fishing down may have occurred in some local areas, for example as happened with cod in the Atlantic. But in other places -- such as the Gulf of Thailand -- fisheries first targeted creatures low in the food chain, such as mussels or prawns, and are now 'fishing up'.
Individuals wanting the bloody details can read the article and/or consult the original article and comment in Nature, The trophic fingerprint of marine fisheries. As for the policy implications of the work:
Timothy Essington, a fisheries researcher at the University of Washington, Seattle, whose work was cited by Branch, argues that for a detailed picture of what is happening in ecosystems, MTL must now be used in combination with other measures. Pauly's original paper took a "20,000-feet view", he says. "What we're seeing now is the view from that altitude isn't very clear."
Essington compares looking at MTL to a physician taking a patient's temperature. If the temperature changes dramatically it is probably an indication that something is wrong, he says. But if the doctor decided on a treatment based on temperature alone, "you would never go back to that doctor again".
Thursday, November 25, 2010
In tribute to the anniversary of Climategate, Spencer Weart (author of The Discovery of Global Warming) placed the events into a larger historical context. Here is what he said:
The controversy was one more step in the trends we have seen operating since the mid 20th century. First, the decline in the prestige of all authorities and would-be authoritative organizations. Second, the great expansion of the scientific community coupled with an increasing interdisciplinarity: strengths which brought a weakness in that that there were no longer any universally respected spokespeople (like Millikan, Einstein, or even Sagan); it is characteristic that the spokesman for the I.P.C.C., Pachauri, was unknown before he took the position, was not even a scientist, and indeed was accepted for the post by the Bush administration precisely because of these deficiencies. Third, the decline of science journalism; where Walter Sullivan and his like had admired the scientific community and were respected in turn, many of the media people who now attempted to explain science, such as the “weather” reporters on television, scarcely understood what they were dealing with.
These trends had been exacerbated since the 1990s by the fragmentation of media (Internet, talk radio), which promoted counter-scientific beliefs such as fear of vaccines among even educated people, by providing facile elaborations of false arguments and a ceaseless repetition of allegations.
The scientific community — for it was not only the I.P.C.C. but the entire scientific community whose reliability was now called into question — was unprepared for the attacks they now faced. We can easily speculate about the personal and social characteristics that to this day make many scientists unfit for aggressive personal controversy. But it will suffice to point out that unlike, for example, any political organization or business corporation, the I.P.C.C. lacked a well-funded and expert public relations apparatus. Even the universities, notably East Anglia, showed a complete lack of understanding of the basic need to respond promptly with a coherent statement of the full factual history of their problems.
To make matters worse, some scientists, and still more people among environmental and other organizations, made statements not supported by what was reliably known. An example was implicit or explicit claims that hurricanes were increasing as a result of human interference with the climate. There was no way for the general public to know whether scientists actually made such claims, still less whether the claims were made honestly or disingenuously. Thus a single error, such as the obviously wrong claim that Himalayan glaciers would vanish within decades, could be suspected to be a deliberate falsehood.
That said, the media coverage represented a new low. There were plenty of earlier examples of media making an uproar without understanding the science (recall, for example, how the director of the Brookhaven National Laboratory was forced to resign because of a leakage of tritium with a total radioactivity less than that in a theater exit sign, see p. xxx). But this was the first time the media reported that an entire community of scientists had been accused of actual dishonesty. Such claims, if directed for example at a politician on a matter of minor importance, would normally require serious investigation. But even in leading newspapers like The New York Times, critics with a long public record for animosity and exaggeration were quoted as experts. As we know, the repetition of allegations is sufficient to make them stick in the public’s mind, regardless of whether they are later shown (or could easily be shown at the time) to be untrue. Thus one more step was taken toward the disintegration and disasters of the late 21st century. … um, just kidding… I hope…
While Weart does a good job of placing the events in a larger historical context, he still seems render these processes (e.g., decline in the authority of scientists, the rise of media promoting 'counter-scientific beliefs') as distinct elements rather than multiple parts of a basic cultural transformation .... i.e., postmodernism.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
The graph above shows that the vast majority of countries are either importing less coal or exporting more of it. The one major exception, China, which has gone from a net exporter to a net importer in the two years between 2007 and 2009.
As the above map shows, there are a large number of countries involved in the trading of coal. The bulk of the shipments to China, however, come from Australia and Indonesia.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Overall, we found that 63 percent of Americans believe that global warming is happening, but many do not understand why. In this assessment, only 8 percent of Americans have knowledge equivalent to an A or B, 40 percent would receive a C or D, and 52 percent would get an F. The study also found important gaps in knowledge and common misconceptions about climate change and the earth system. These misconceptions lead some people to doubt that global warming is happening or that human activities are a major contributor, to misunderstand the causes and therefore the solutions, and to be unaware of the risks. Thus many Americans lack some of the knowledge needed for informed decision-making in a democratic society. For example, only:
- 57% know that the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat;
- 50% of Americans understand that global warming is caused mostly by human activities;
- 45% understand that carbon dioxide traps heat from the Earth’s surface;
- 25% have ever heard of coral bleaching or ocean acidification.
Meanwhile, large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming, leading many to incorrectly conclude that banning aerosol spray cans or stopping rockets from punching holes in the ozone layer are viable solutions.
But, is this something to really be concerned about? These findings aren't tremendously different from other 'tests' of public knowledge that find, for example, 48% of American youth can't locate Mississippi on a map of the US while 75% can't locate Israel on a map of the Middle East. And, moreover, I don't think it realistic to expect the general public to be informed about the technical details of every issue. The world is too complex, the mediascape too uncooperative, and there are too many competing pressures on individuals (like paying the mortgage) for an effective governance strategy to be based on a general public knowledgeable about the technical details of highly complex issues.
Stated another way, the public is diverse and only a small segment are interested in understanding the science. But this doesn't stop them from having opinions. And, as Mike Hulme notes in the Guardian, the events of the past year have had a major effect on the ecology of public opinion on climate change:
There has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of "here's the consensus science, now let's make climate policy" has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: "What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?" The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.
The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can't be homogenised through appeals to science. Those actors who have long favoured a linear connection between climate science and climate policy – spanning environmentalists, contrarians and some scientists and politicians – have been forced to rethink. It is clearer today that the battle lines around climate change have to be drawn using the language of politics, values and ethics rather than the one-dimensional language of scientific consensus or lack thereof.
This leads to the second, and to me more interesting, study conducted by the Yale group: The Six Americas Study. This study identifies six different responses among Americans to the politics of climate change, ranging from individuals who are intensely concerned about the issue and motivated to do something to those who are dismissive of the problem and unmotivated to do anything to address the issue. The following video (starting at about the one minute mark) describes the key characteristics of each group.
As shown below, they have tracked the size of the 6 groups through time. While 18 months isn't a lot of time, there are a couple of interesting and discernible trends. First, there is a general consistency in opinions through time. The area of the different groups remains about the same and, in particular, the "concerned" (those who think climate change is happening, but its effects probably won't be felt for a generation) and the "cautious" (those who wonder whether or not climate change is real or whether humans are responsible) remain the two largest groups throughout.
Second, the January 2010 survey, taken immediately after the collapse of Copenhagen and in the midst of the 'climategate' scandal, is the profile that differs most from the other two. The media attention during that period seems to have engaged a significant proportion of the 'disengaged' (leading to a decline in their numbers) while at the same time driving up the number of 'dismissives' and reducing the number of 'alarmed' Americans.
Third, the 'doubtful' group appears to have been the least affected by the period of contention in December 2009 as their percentage remains essentially constant throughout. These are people who have an opinion, but aren't really engaged (I don't think it is real, but if it is it's a natural phenomenon and I don't need to worry about it.) In that sense, they are more isolated and less affected by the dynamics of the debate than the 'disengaged.'
Finally, the net effect of the events of December 2009 (i.e., a comparison of the November 2008 and June 2010 data) shows little overall change in the number of 'doubtful' and 'disengaged'. What we see is a 5% decline in the number of 'alarmed' and 'concerned' and corresponding 5% rises in the number of 'cautious' and 'dismissives'.
Friday, November 19, 2010
Among the rather interesting items there were references to two papers exploring the links between Foucault and complexity theory. Here are the references and abstracts.
1) Ken Baskin, "Foucault, Complexity, and Myth: Toward a Complexity-based Approach to Social Evolution (a.k.a. History)." (You can preview the paper by opening the cover in Amazon and going to it--it is the first chapter in the book).
2) Mark Olssen "Foucault as Complexity Theorist: Overcoming the problems of classical philosophical analysis." Educational Philosophy and Theory, Volume 40, Issue 1, pages 96–117, February 2008 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00406.x
This article explores the affinities and parallels between Foucault's Nietzschean view of history and models of complexity developed in the physical sciences in the twentieth century. It claims that Foucault's rejection of structuralism and Marxism can be explained as a consequence of his own approach which posits a radical ontology whereby the conception of the totality or whole is reconfigured as an always open, relatively borderless system of infinite interconnections, possibilities and developments. His rejection of Hegelianism, as well as of other enlightenment philosophies, can be understood at one level as a direct response to his rejection of the mechanical atomist, and organicist epistemological world views, based upon a Newtonian conception of a closed universe operating upon the basis of a small number of invariable and universal laws, by which all could be predicted and explained. The idea of a fully determined, closed universe is replaced; and in a way parallel to complexity theories, Foucault's own approach emphasises notions such as self-organisation and dissipative structures; time as an irreversible, existential dimension; a world of finite resources but with infinite possibilities for articulation, or re-investment; and characterised by the principles of openness, indeterminism, unpredictability, and uncertainty. The implications of Foucault's type of approach are then explored in relation to identity, creativity, and the uniqueness of the person. The article suggests that within a complexity theory approach many of the old conundrums concerning determinism and creativity, social constructionism and uniqueness, can be overcome.
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Monday, November 15, 2010
Sunday, November 14, 2010
The interesting thing, as shown in the graph below, is the manner in which they diverge from the classic interpretation of peak oil based on Hubbert's analysis. Rather than rendering the 'peak' as the point of inflection of a broadly symmetric production curve, the IEA are forecasting that substantial reserves in fields yet developed or discovered will allow global crude oil production to plateau for another 25 years at a close approximation of current rates. In other words, they have replaced Hubbert's concept of 'peak' oil with their own analysis, more appropriately termed 'plateau' oil.
Chart from Energy Outlook 2010
This rhetorical shift, admitting that the peak is passed yet concluding that it has no significant implication for the medium-term future of conventional oil production, can best be understood in light of the background presented here. The release of last year's report, which included the graph below showing that production would continue to increase, was met with a storm of controversy when an internal whistle blower indicated that the US had pressured the agency to keep the figures artificially inflated. This year's report appears to be an attempt to square the circle by admitting the peak has passed but claiming it has no significant policy implications.
Corresponding Chart from the Energy Outlook 2009
Equally as interesting, though not the focus of much comment, is the substantial reduction in the forecast of production from natural gas liquids. The 2009 report projected a near doubling of production for NGL by 2030 while the 2010 report projects comparatively constant production thru 2035.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
In a curmudgeonly take on the ideologically driven nature of some environmentalists, Brand has written that: "I would like to see an environmental movement that's comfortable noticing when it's wrong and announcing when it's wrong."
I'm fine with that and find some of Brand's views on the above issues compelling. But, what's good for the goose is good for the gander, and it turns out Brand is now in a controversy with George Monbriot over the validity of the following passage from his book:
Environmentalists were right to be inspired by marine biologist Rachel Carson's book on pesticides, Silent Spring, but wrong to place DDT in the category of Absolute Evil (which she did not) … In an excess of zeal that Carson did not live to moderate, DDT was banned worldwide, and malaria took off in Africa. Quoted in a 2007 National Geographic article, Robert Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health said: 'The ban on DDT may have killed 20m children.'
It turns out that the 2001 Stockholm Convention which regulates DDT use worldwide a) doesn't ban DDT and b) explicitly allows use to control disease vectors (read kill the mosquitoes that carry malaria). Monbriot's blog traces a hilarious series of ineffective attempts to contact Brand and get him to address the issue .... sort of a text version of Michael Moore's Roger and Me. Brand even suggests that Monbriot's argument isn't with Brand but with Gwadz (who Brand quotes)!
Personally, I want science journalism that holds itself to higher standards than the ideological hacks that dominate political blogs and unthinkingly repeat whatever quote they can find that justifies their position. Michelle Bachman can claim that Obama's trip is costing $200 million per day and Fox News can amplify that claim all they want. It doesn't make it true. And pointing to a Indian blogger (or Gwadz) as the source doesn't free you from responsibility. By not assessing the claim for accuracy -- the explicit criteria Brand has laid down for the environmental movement -- both Brand and Bachman need to recognize that they (as well as the sources) were wrong.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
Friday, November 5, 2010
A recent report, Growth of U.S. Climate Change Litigation: Trends and Consequences, documents a fascinating trend in US court filings related to climate change. Following a dip in 2009, when there was the expectation of legislative action, filings have skyrocketed with the year end total for 2010 expected to triple the number of filings in 2009. Significantly, the cases involve filings both advancing and undercutting climate change regulations. As noted in the NYTimes coverage, the situation may play out in much the same way as happened with tobacco.
Bruce Kahn, senior investment analyst at DBCCA, says that in an extreme situation, the development of climate lawsuits could come to resemble the famous history of U.S. tobacco litigation. In that case, thousands of separate legal challenges eventually culminated in massive lawsuits, with the courts, and not Congress, eventually determining the character of U.S. tobacco policy.
The difference, says Kahn, is that climate litigation is growing at an alarmingly fast rate.
"The rate of change relative to tobacco is much faster," he said. "The run-up in tobacco cases took several decades before it became a real big class action suit ... whereas the ramp-up in climate change litigation has been much quicker."
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Saturday, October 30, 2010
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
I approached the site with high expectations. Claiming inspiration from Wikipedia and Linux, obvious examples where effective use of distributed intelligence has facilitated the creation of an emergent product, the site aims to split the climate problem into manageable parts and foster productive online discourse aimed at distilling solutions. Unfortunately, it seems they have a long way to go.
First off, there aren't a lot of participants and those who are there are organized competitively rather than cooperatively. The base structure involves teams that propose plans which are then adjudicated in a two phase process -- by experts for feasibility (because earlier plans chosen by the community turned out not to be feasible) a then by a vote among the community. In other words, it is a contest. As a result there are a number of proposed plans (22 when I looked, only 8 of which had attracted any support from the community) generated by team members (i.e., you have to be a member of the team to work on the proposal). And the teams are small (3 members or fewer as near as I could tell). In other words, the site is structured to generate competing (and hopefully, insightful, ideas) rather than work collaboratively on the problem. Or, stated another way, the premise is that some genius off in cyberspace can come up with an idea the rest of us haven't thought of. But that, of course, is precisely the problem with climate change. It is massively complex and, for precisely that reason, seems to lend itself to a LARGE SCALE collaborative effort like Wikipedia or Linux. Moreover, most of the teams seem to be there to push specific ideas that have been proposed elsewhere rather than to develop new ideas of their own.
Second, the "discussion" consists of a) voting on a number of propositions that the site authors have put up (e.g., Is the earth's climate changing because of human activity? Yes or No?)and b) making comments (almost no one has). Again, this doesn't seem like a serious effort to move the debate forward.
But most troubling, from my perspective, is that these supposed experts in Collective Intelligence seem to be pretty clueless about the role of social structure in collaboration. On the one hand, they have written an interesting article (The Collective Intelligence Genome) in which they claim "Collective intelligence has already been proven to work" (I agree) and "CI systems can be designed and managed to fit specific needs (through the use of) CI building blocks, or “genes,” (that) can be recombined to create the right kind of system" (an interesting idea that recognizes the connection between structure and success).
But the "gene" they have decided to use to solve the climate problem is the one best exemplified in the success of Threadless, a model they describe as follows: "anyone who wants to can design a T-shirt, submit that design to a weekly contest and then rate their favorite designs. From the entries receiving the highest ratings, the company selects winning designs, puts them into production and gives prizes and royalties to the winning designers. In this way, the company harnesses the collective intelligence of a community of over 500,000 people to design and select T-shirts."
This is a great model (like You-Tube) for getting other people to do free labor for you in the development of a product. But anyone who thinks designing a t-shirt is a problem with anything remotely approximating the complexity of solving the climate change problem they need their head examined. The folks at ClimateCoLab would have been much better off re-reading Andrew Poe's insightful article (The Hive) about the evolution of the social rules and structure responsible for Wikipedia's success. Any serious attempt to deal with the climate problem through the collective intelligence process lies down that path and not down the one being touted by ClimateCoLab.