Friday, June 12, 2015

Robert Heinlein, Cell Phones, and Police

Somewhere, Heinlein comments that predicting the direct effects of technological change is relatively easy. What is harder is predicting indirect effects. His example was the automobile. He argued that it had a substantial effect on sexual behavior by giving couples a place to make love out of sight of parents.

I am not sure how convincing that example is, but it occurs to me that we have another and clearer one. Did it occur to anyone, ten or fifteen years ago, that one effect of the development of cell phone technology would be, by providing practically everyone with a pocket video camera, to greatly increase public opposition to police beating people up? 

The closest I can think of is in David Brin's Transparent Society, where he argued that, in a future where everything is subject to surveillance, the transparency ought to go in both directions: The police can watch us, but we can also watch them.  I do not think it occurred to him how we would get there or that the essential change would be not in what you could see but in what you could record and offer for public view.

P.S. Judging by comments, I may have been unfair to Brin, working off my memory of one book, not all of his writing.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Medieval Myth

On an entirely different topic ...  

Given my historical interests, I have long been struck by how inaccurate popular conceptions of the Middle Ages are—summed up in the historically obsolete label of "Dark Ages." My usual example is the myth that medieval food was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat, propagated by people who have never read a medieval recipe, let alone cooked from one, or spent as long as twenty seconds thinking about the consequence for a cook of routinely serving spoiled meat, disguised with expensive spices, to his boss. I also have a pair of accounts of scientific reasoning, one from a Norse saga and one from a 14th century North African.

I have just come across a delightful review of a recent book on the medieval foundations of modern science, written by a reviewer who shares my attitude towards popular confident ignorance on the subject.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Looking for an Honest Man

I believe I have shown that John Cook, lead author of the article commonly cited for the claim that 97% of climate scientists support AGW, has lied in print about his own work. My argument assumed that Cook et. al. 2013 was itself honest, but other people have offered good evidence that it is not.

It is not surprising if there are some dishonest people on one side, or the other, or both of the climate controversy. A more interesting question is whether there are any honest people. Can anyone point at a prominent supporter of action to prevent warming who has publicly rejected Cook et. al. 2013 or its author?

The same question can be asked of the other side. Are there prominent articles criticizing the campaign to prevent warming that are clearly dishonest, clearly enough so that someone with no commitment to either side of the controversy would recognize them as such? If so, have they been publicly rejected by anyone on that side?

Judging Outside Your Expertise

I have just been involved in a lengthy exchange on Facebook over my criticism of the claim that warming on the scale projected by the IPCC for 2100 can be expected to have large net negative consequences. The response I got was that the person I was arguing with was not interested in my arguments. He does not know enough to judge for himself whether the conclusion is true, so prefers to believe what the experts say.

Accepting the views of experts on a question you are not competent to answer for yourself, assuming that you can figure out who they are and what they believe, is often a sensible policy, but one can sometimes do better. Sometimes one can look at arguments and evaluate them not on the basis of the science but of internal evidence, what they themselves say. Here are three examples:

The widely cited 97% figure is based mostly on Cook et. al. 2013, which is webbed. It is often reported as the percentage of climate scientists who believe that humans are the main cause of warming and that warming will have very bad effects. Simply reading the article tells you that the second half is false. The article is about causes of warming and offers no evidence on consequences. Anyone who says it does is either ignorant or dishonest, and other things he says can be evaluated on that basis.

If you read the article carefully you discover that the 97% figure, which is a count of article abstracts not scientists, is the percentage of abstracts which say or imply that humans are *a* cause of warming (“contribute to” in the language of one example). The corresponding figure for humans as the principal cause, which is not given in the article but can be calculated from its webbed data, is 1.6%. That tells you that anyone who reports the 97% figure as the number of articles holding that humans are the main cause of warming is either ignorant or dishonest. One person who has done so, in print, is John Cook, the lead author of the article. John Cook runs, which is a major source for arguments for one side of the global warming dispute, so knowing that he is willing to lie in print about his own work is a reason not to believe things on that site without checking them. [My old blog post giving details]

One of the economists who has been active in estimating consequences of warming is William Nordhaus. He is, among other things, the original source for the 2° limit. A few years ago, he published an article in the New York Review of Books attacking a Wall Street Journal piece that argued that climate was not a catastrophic threat that required an immediate response. In it, he gave his figure for the cost of waiting fifty years instead of taking the optimal steps now—$4.1 trillion dollars—and commented that “Wars have been started over smaller sums.” What he did not mention was that that sum, spread out over the rest of the century and the entire world, came to about one twentieth of one percent of world GNP. He was attacking the WSJ authors for an argument which his own research, as he reported it, supported.

In a recent Facebook exchange on the consequences of AGW for agriculture, someone linked to an EPA piece on the subject. Reading it carefully, I noticed that the positive effects of warming and CO2 fertilization were facts, with numbers: “The yields for some crops, like wheat and soybeans, could increase by 30% or more under a doubling of CO2 concentrations. The yields for other crops, such as corn, exhibit a much smaller response (less than 10% increase).” The negative effects were vague and speculative: “some factors may counteract these potential increases in yield. For example, if temperature exceeds a crop's optimal level or if sufficient water and nutrients are not available, yield increases may be reduced or reversed.” The same pattern held through the article.

A careful reader might also notice that the piece referred to the negative effects of extreme weather without any attempt to distinguish between extreme weather that AGW made more likely (hot summers), less likely (cold winters), or would have an uncertain effect on (droughts, floods, hurricanes). It was reasonably clear that the article was designed to make it sound as though the effects of AGW would be negative without offering any good reason to believe it was true. One telling sentence: “Overall, climate change could make it more difficult to grow crops, raise animals, and catch fish in the same ways and same places as we have done in the past.” With most of a century to adjust, it is quite unlikely that farmers will continue to do everything in the same ways and the same places as in the past.

These are three examples of arguments for one side of the climate controversy by a source taken seriously by supporters of that side. Each can be evaluated on internal evidence, what it itself says, without requiring any expert knowledge of the subject. In each case, doing so gives you good reasons not to trust either the source or the conclusion.

Readers may reasonably suspect that I too am biased. But nothing I have said here depends on your trusting me. In each case, you can look at the evidence and evaluate it for yourself. And all of it is evidence provided by the people whose work I am criticizing.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

How to Make Economics Fun

I'm currently in Cincinnati, where I gave a talk this evening to an audience of the teachers, high school and college, who grade the AP Econ exam. It was about how to teach economics in ways that will get and hold the attention of students.

It occurred to me that some readers of this blog might be interested.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Dear TSA: Give Up Already

According to multiple news stories, tests of TSA airport inspection by Department of Homeland Security red team agents found that 95% of simulated bombs and weapons were missed by the inspectors. That suggests that the considerable costs and hassles imposed by TSA on passengers over the past thirteen years accomplished almost nothing. The response by both government spokesmen and the media is that they just need to try harder, do a better job. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone that if, after thirteen years, TSA is still unable to keep people from getting bombs and weapons onto airplanes, perhaps it should give up.

That does not mean taking no precautions at all. There are obvious precautions that have nothing to do with inspections, such as reinforced doors to protect the pilot area of an airplane and arming pilots. Terrorists willing to kill other people are easier to find than terrorists willing to kill themselves, so it makes sense to be sure that if the person who checked a bag doesn’t board, the bag comes off. As a protection against hijackers, it might make sense to have armed sky marshalls on many flights or to train and arm members of the flight crew. That would cost considerably less money than the current system and impose no cost in time and hassle on passengers.

Those precautions will not stop someone from blowing up an airplane with himself on it, but, to judge by the results of the red team tests, neither do the current precautions. That no such events have occurred is evidence that few or no attempts are being made.

A defender of the present system could still argue that even if it only stops one or two incidents, it is worth doing, since human life is infinitely valuable. There are two things wrong with that argument. The first is that human life is not infinitely valuable, as shown by the choices humans make. All of us choose to take some risks we could avoid, to drive to visit relatives when we could stay home, to eat something short of the perfect diet, to see the doctor less often than we would if avoiding death was something we regarded as infinitely valuabie.

The second thing wrong with the argument is that the present system also has a cost in life, less visible than a terrorist attack but probably larger than the cost of terrorist attacks prevented by the TSA. The more expensive, in money, time, and hassle airline travel is, the more people choose to drive instead. Driving is a great deal more dangerous per mile than flying, so more people driving means more people dying.

We cannot calculate the number of dead without knowing the size of the shift from flying to driving produced by the TSA, but we can at least get some feel for the order of magnitude. The mortality rate from driving is about one death per 100 million vehicle miles. The mortality rate from flying is very close to zero—one estimate I found was .07 deaths per billion passenger miles. So, roughly speaking, every hundred million passenger miles diverted from flying to driving represents one more highway death.

In February of 2015, passengers on commercial airlines flew 60 billion passenger miles. Assuming the figure is the same for other months, that’s about 700 billion passenger miles a year. If we assume, I think conservatively, that one percent of passenger miles are diverted from flying to driving by TSA hassles, that comes to 7 billion passenger miles or about 70 deaths. Add that up for the thirteen years the TSA has been in operation, and it has killed almost a thousand people. Invisibly.

A Record for LAX

I am currently sitting in LAX en route from San Jose to Cincinnati, where I am giving a talk. I have concluded that LAX holds a record. It is the worst marked airport in the world. It's true that I have not actually been in all of the world's airports so there may be one somewhere that is worse, but I doubt it.

I arrived on Delta, was to leave on United. The Delta terminal had, so far as I could tell, no signs showing what airline flew out of what terminal, no signs showing how to get to terminal 7, which turned out to be where United was, no visible information for any non-Delta flights.

I succeeded in finding my gate by asking people along the way. If I did not speak English—and a lot of people coming through LAX don't—I might still be looking.

LAX is currently under construction, which can explain some problems, but not this. It would be easy enough to make up a signboard showing which airline was at which terminal and put one in every terminal. It would be easy enough to put up signs showing, from each terminal, what direction you went to get to each other terminal. But nobody has bothered, judging at least by the Delta terminal and most of the space between it and United.