Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Moral Derpitude

With the summer doldrums, ATTP going to conferences and the Greek crisis, it becomes necessary for Eli to borrow seriously in order to maintain paid readership (Damn Eli needs to monetize this blog but Brian will demand a cut).  Thus by way of Crooked Timber, Noah Smith on definitive derpiness, a subject he has deeply studied

It has to do with Bayesian probability. Bayesian probability basically says that "probability" is, to some degree, subjective. It's your best guess for how likely something is. But to be Bayesian, your "best guess" must take the observable evidence into account. Updating your beliefs by looking at the outside world is called "Bayesian inference. Your initial guess about the probability is called your "prior belief", or just your "prior" for short. Your final guess, after you look at the evidence, is called your "posterior." The observable evidence is what changes your prior into your posterior.

How much does the evidence change your belief? That depends on three things. It depends on A) how different the evidence is from your prior, B) how strong the evidence is, and C) how strong your prior is.

What does it mean for a prior to be "strong" really, really believe something to be true. If your start off with a very strong prior, even solid evidence to the contrary won't change your mind. In other words, your posterior will come directly from your prior. (And where do priors come from? On this, Bayesian theory is silent. Let's assume they come directly from your...um...posterior.)

There are many people who have very strong priors about things. For example, there are people who believe, very strongly, that solar power will never be cost-efficient. If you confront them with evidence of solar's rapid price declines, they will continue to insist that, despite this evidence, solar will simply never be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. That they continue to insist this does not necessarily make them irrational in the Bayesian sense; they simply have very strong priors. Someday they may be convinced - for example, if and when unsubsidized solar power starts being adopted on a mass scale. It'll just take a LOT to convince them. (A more entertaining example can be seen in this classic comedy video)

But here's the thing: When those people keep broadcasting their priors to the world again and again after every new piece of evidence comes out, it gets very annoying. After every article comes out about a new solar technology breakthrough, or a new cost drop, they'll just repeat "Solar will never be cost-competitive." That is unhelpful and uninformative, since they're just restating their priors over and over. Thus, it is annoying. Guys, we know what you think already.

English has no word for the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors". Yet it is a well-known phenomenon in the world of punditry, debate, and public affairs. On Twitter, we call it "derp"

Go read Noah and the comments

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Amazon is Cool


Well, it's summer in the North, and the birds are singing, the bunnies, well, you know what, and people all over are sweating.  It has been particularly bad in Europe, the Western US, and disastrous in South Asia, both India and Pakistan.

As Eli could have told you the search is on for excuses, especially in light of new papers which attribute and increase in heat waves to climate change.  Some, not Eli to be sure, recommend very large air conditioners to handle the problem.   ARPA-E has been working on that, well along the line of solar and thermal driven units, not extra jumbos, and there is progress.

Others, actually the same some playing the others card, are going the ostrich route, nothing happening here, move on.  This has lead to a cheerful back and forth between La Curry and El Tamino.  Curry posted some slides from a talk by NOAA's Prashant Sardeshmukh describing shifts in mean temperature and the standard deviation of the temperature distribution and coming to the conclusion that there has been no increase in heat waves.

Now to be honest there are some issues with this.  First, the slides only deal with changes in December-January-February, which is the northern hemisphere winter (Yes, Eli knows about Australia and the newly popular concern of some of those who block the Bunny's tweets with Africa) but most land and most people find themselves in the northern hemisphere, which, also is where they get hit by heat waves during the summer.  Oh yeah, it's real TLT out there, the temperatures are from the 850 mbar level where no one is hot because of the lapse rate, and from reanalyses, not measurements.  Of course Eli expects that such manipulation would not be allowed in the blogs of denial.  Eli is often disappointed

Curry shows a slide of temperature distributions by Sardeshmukh defining a heat wave as when the temperature exceeds a fixed limit.  Curry then shows a slide by Sardeshmukh showing the global distribution of temperature changes,



and the global distribution of the change in the width of the temperature distributions



and, then what Sardeshmukh purports to be the probability of a heat wave


Red is increase, blue decrease.  Apologies to the color blind and Doug McNeall will be here in a moment.  Somewhat seriously, Uncle Rabett was so color blind that you could not let him out of the house without checking his dress, which often followed an early Rowan and Martin theme if not examined by Aunt Rabett.  There has to be a color shifting app to handle that.

Eli will let Tamino, who noticed this explain in detail, why this is sausage.  If you look at the little box on the right, it is an area where both the temperature and the width of the distribution go up, but the probability of a heat wave, according to Sardeshnukh go down.

How is this done, well, according to Curry, lots of air conditioners are installed as the world warms and this means that for a "real" heat wave the temperature at which one is declared, goes up too.

Go read the tweets and especially Tamino's two posts (one, two)  Sardeshnukh has weighed in at Curry's claiming that he did define heat waves as being past the post at a fixed temperature, and Tamino is asking (politely, as Mozart would) for the data.

Curry, however, was at least this morning, of Tamino's opinion about what Sardeshnukh had done
Tamino’s argument is essentially a quibble about how heat waves are defined, there are various definitions

For the heat wave forecasts that my company provides to the energy sector, so they can anticipate high energy demand, we define heat wave in terms of the standard deviation above the climatological mean for that location (we use 1.5 standard deviations for the energy demand applications, whereas Sardeshmukh used 2 standard deviations). For our heat wave forecasts in Ahmedabad India, we use specified temperature thresholds. Other definitions are tied to a specific temperature increment, e.g. 5C above daily average.

Sardeshmukh’s analysis uses two different baseline temps: one prior to 1950 and the other post 1950, and then calculates deviations from those means. His whole point is that the standard deviation and skewness changes can dominate, resulting in fewer large excursions from the mean.
As Tamino said in his first post
Which makes me wonder, what the hell is going on? If he was trying to emphasize that we can’t use the change in mean and standard deviation to understand the 2-sigma exceedance, well duh. When the mean goes up and the standard deviation goes up and you change the limit to define “extreme” temperature, you should expect nothing less.
All this will play out relatively quickly, but it did inspire Eli to play a bit with the temperature and standard deviation figures above using (shudder Powerpoint, which has some interesting features.  By sharpening up the colors and overlaying the two figures One can make out areas where both temperature and standard deviations changed in the same directions and in opposite directions


If they both increase, the color is red, if one increases and the other decreases purple.  There is ONLY one spot where both the temperature and the standard deviation decreased, right about at the mouth of the Amazon.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Brave New World: Aldous Huxley and Eco Modernism

When Eli was a young bunny being civilized by his teachers, there were two dystopian models of instruction used to warn against the future, George Orwell's 1984 and and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  1984 is a dark vision of perpetual war and oppression with obvious roots in Stalinism and Nazi Germany, a war just fought and a cold war starting, both with the potential of destroying the world.

Brave New World is an exercise in Paradise Engineering and the best illustration we have to the darker implications of the recent Eco Modernist Manifesto.   Eco Modernism revives the faith in technology of the late 19th and early 20th century, an optimism that found expression in our growing ability to shape the world coupled with hubris and contempt of the natural. Marxists, particularly Stalin and Mao discovered industrial marxism and their many attempts to control nature produced only disasters. Their heavy handed attempts to create technology produced contaminated industrial wastelands.

The obvious parallels of the Eco-Modernist Manifesto to the philosophical underpinnings of modernism and industrial marxism formed Eli's first impression, but a conversation at ATTP has shifted the Bunny's focus to Huxley's vision.  While one can quibble for or against the specific technologies that are recommended, one must seriously consider the implications for the organization of society which make the Brave New World a model for how an Eco-Modernist society MUST be organized to function.

Ecomodernism postulates movement of population to large cities, industrialization of agriculture and the isolation of areas for nature.  It is not that we do not know where that vision leads, and we even have examples today of nations that are essentially single cities such as Singapore and Qatar moving in that direction.

Huxley's brave new world was based on genetically engineered social classes with the Alphas at the top and the Deltas and Epsilons at the bottom collecting the garbage and providing other services.  Today's city states and those of the ecomodernists require vast numbers of Deltas and Epsilons to support the Alphas.  They are ancient greek city states with a small number of citizens benefitting from the labor of a large number of contract workers many on temporary visas.  If you are an alpha, it is a good deal, if not, maybe not so much.

The reliance of the ecomodernist city state on complex technologies requires strong central control to keep the machine running, leaving little room for individuality.  City states may occupy not much land, but they require a great deal of land and resources from that land to provide all that the people living in them need.  Urban organization and governance is complex.  As Izen points out at ATTP, the ecomodern city state requires a social monoculture with no room for dissent and that monoculture is enforced by the power of the state.

The brave new world of ecomodernism will be a very uncomfortable fit to many ecomodernists' dreams.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Divestment and Dilberto si



The encyclical emphasizes a moral element to the climate debate that the drier analyses miss. I wrote previously that a bishop flubbed a response to a Foxquestion about whether we shouldn't do other things to help the poor instead of reducing our precious carbon emissions. He said the encyclical invited people to a dialogue to figure out what to do, so let's just sit down and talk.

The best answer is that Fox is referrring to a Lomborgdeception, a study artificially minimizing the impact of climate relative to other impacts, but we might not expect the bishop to know that. The next best answer he should say, however, is that moral questions can have strict answers. If  a particular action you're doing is harming someone else, you may prefer to continue harming that person while making it up to them in other ways, but the decision is not up to you. If Lomborg et al. want to persuade the most-harmed that there's a better deal for them, the inactivists can try, but I don't think Australia is where you want to go for that. 

The moral case the Pope emphasizes is that GHG emissions harm the poorest, and the same logic works on divestment. The only reason to invest in fossil-fuel companies at their current price levels is because they make the poor pay a significant portion of the cost of their product, and are offering to pass on part of the resulting profit to you, the investor.

The issue of divestment and the Catholic Church hasn't escaped the notice of many other people, although what's unclear to me is whether much anything is happening within the official church hierarchy, let alone action to reduce the Church's own GHG emissions. Hopefully the encyclical teaching will move to the next steps of action on divestment and on emissions as models that the Church can point to as models for the rest.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Someone should collect these climate conversion stories

There may be some useful common thread to how educated people resist climate science for a while, maybe years, and then come around. And it's probably different than what shifts the average voter who spends very little time thinking about the issue.


The excellent science journalist Dan Vergano gives us his conversion story. Short version is he began as a member of the hippie-punching Cold Warrior tribe who reflexively disbelieved in climate change. His self-image as engineer opened the first crack though, when someone he trusted challenged him to check the data and he was educated enough to understand it. Not enough to be convinced though. 

Convinced happened years later as a science journalist, when he applied the "nut test" to professed experts on both sides of the climate issue. The real scientist acknowledged the possibility of being wrong, while the denialist acknowledged none, and the issue was settled for Vergano.

I still find it somewhat perplexing to understand why people go unpersuaded for years by mountains of evidence and then finally change their minds, but this helps a little. Maybe we need a database about how to shake people from their mental frames.

Ironically, I think solutions work the opposite way for most people who spend little time on the issue and are persuaded by certainty and confidence. "The science is settled" is more persuasive to most people (and also true) than "our horde of scientists are still thinking rationally, while the tiny clique on the other side are controlled by irrational certainty and can't be trusted."

You have to understand your audience. Some years ago at my water district when it considered fluoridation, I was annoyed with the pro-fluoride proponents who claimed certainty that fluoridation was safe. The other side was even worse and I sided with fluoridation, but both were using the wrong arguments with me.



Side note:  here's 10 minutes of pretty favorable coverage of the Pope's encyclical on Fox News Sunday. That type of coverage could help given the network it's on. Wallace trots out a version of the Lomborg nonsense about doing something to help the poor other than fixing climate, and I think the bishop flubs his response, but the back and forth is less important than the overall favorable coverage.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Papal Encyclical Bingo


Eli, of course, remembers the old days of global climate denialist bingo, and with the coming of the Laudato Si, driving the crazy to infinity, thought it might be time to hand our new cards.  To get the bunnies started, the Rabett has filled in a few of the squares and welcomes suggestions for others.

There is a world of hurl out there to snark at, feel free.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

What Catholic opinion on the death penalty tells you about the encyclical's future effect

It tells you first that Catholics are about 10% less supportive of the death penalty than the general population. One would have to adjust for other factors to prove that's driven by being Catholic as opposed to something else, but it seems in large part to be real. (See also this article showing on issues where the Church is conservative, regular churchgoers are more likely to take the same position.)

Contrary to a poorly-reasoned article in Grist, religion can have an effect on politics, and looking at where Catholics stand now doesn't tell you where they will be if action on climate gets enmeshed in Catholic teaching. The president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops calls the encyclical their "marching orders on advocacy."

Death penalty advocacy is a different apple, though. It's something the Church has been beating on for decades, so it could be a while for the encyclical to have a similar effect, assuming the Church even maintains the interest that Francis has directed. OTOH, I think normal folks are more likely to have their own intuition on the death penalty than they are to have one on climate change, so the Church's effect on death penalty opinion has had to push against a stronger current.

I'll gladly take a 10% shift in Catholic opinion, which doesn't even account for an increase in priority that supportive Catholics will place on the issue. It also might help fracture the tribal identity that drives Catholic conservatives to denialism. I think at least of equal importance will be its effect on pushing other religions to also up their game on the issue.

It's a marathon.