Thursday, July 4, 2019

REFLECTIONS ON AN AMERICAN CELEBRATION


This land is not a land
It’s an idea.

Sometimes we fear that idea,
We spit on it, we trample it.
Then we pick it up, we dust it off, we pat it on the head.
Ideas don’t mind.
People do.

Today we celebrate our land,
Tomorrow we go back to the fear, the spitting, the trampling,
Or even worse, the indifference.

But there’s a problem.

People die; land dies; countries die;
But ideas do not have to die.
But ideas must grow, or they will die.

Greatness is momentary in the flesh,
But in an idea endlessly growing,
It is immortal.

So when we celebrate our land today,
We are only picking our idea up, dusting it off, patting it on the head.
We need to do more.

We need to overcome our fear of our idea,
And right its wrongs,
And help it grow new lofty mansions,
As the seasons roll.

Else tomorrow, we may find that our idea is dead.
And when our idea is dead,
Our country might as well be dead.

For why should anyone care any more about our country or us
Than any others?
We will no longer have an idea
To protect us people somewhat
From the fear, the spitting, the trampling.

This land is not our land.
Because it’s an idea.
People don’t own ideas;
Parents don’t own children.

And so, today,
Ask not what your country can do for you.
Ask what you can do for your idea.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Reading New Thoughts: Green and Bowles/Carlin Rethink Economics


Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
What I am talking about here is a history of West Africa circa 1200-1850 called “A Fistful of Shells”, by Toby Green, and a white paper by Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin analyzing CORE’s “The Economy”, a new multi-sourced introductory Economics textbook.  Both seem to me to provide different and troubling new ways to view economics as a whole; your mileage may vary.

Let’s start with Green.  Imho, his argument runs something like this:  a trade in gold (sub-Saharan Africa providing, North Africa/Europe/Middle East benefiting) sprang up, supplemented and then replaced by a trade in slaves.  These slaves were a natural outgrowth of previous uses of slaves (acquired in warfare, or involving criminals and excess population) both in Africa and Europe/Middle East.  

The initial result was positive economic growth.  The single source of the gold was iirc in Senegambia, and the people there carefully protected themselves and their mining from discovery and takeover, so the rest of West Africa began to be drawn in as middlemen.  Kings with control over some aspect of the trade arose, and were able to siphon off some of the profits to establish and maintain power.  Thus the Mali and Songhay “empires”.  

However, the trade relationship was fundamentally unequal.  Cowrie shells, especially those imported from the Maldives, were used locally as currency (as well as cloth and iron bars), but the fact that cowrie shells were relatively easy to produce made any currency exchange highly unequal – there are records indicating that some kings attempting a pilgrimage to Mecca had to pay in gold along the way, finally running out and then incurring debts that eventually led to the downfall of their kingdoms.  When the need for slaves for the New World surged, it effectively acted as a replacement in the economy for the decreasing demand for gold.  And when export of slaves to the New World ended, it was replaced by slavery within the kings’ domains.  

Moreover, the new slave-based economy had its own subtle traps.  Carried to an extreme, as it soon was, it meant the impoverishment of those outside the kings’ and European traders’ political control, as they moved to isolated and protected communities to escape the slave raiders.  Even within the scope of the new polities, the proportion of those in danger of slavery went up, and hence the economic benefits, such as they were, went to relatively few compared to the situation north of the Sahara. 

Analysis of Green:  Commodity/Currency-Based Economic Inequality


Green’s conclusion is, I think, worth quoting:  “an expansion of trade on the one hand [from Europe and the Middle East] provoked less access to the wealth of capital on the other [for West Africa] … growing capital differentials [were] exacerbated by the trade of currencies that were losing economic value globally – such as cowries and cloths – for those that were either gaining or producing surplus value, such as gold and human beings … When currency imports to [West] Africa were not matched by trade goods, there was inflation of currencies used in Africa … When trade goods were also imported, these competed with local production and reduced extensive exports of African manufactures … This declining export deterred investment … in manufacturing …”  In other words, a strong degree of participation in the global economy fostered from Europe from 1400 onwards did not result in comparable or even major improvements in living standards for most, or even GNP, in West Africa.  We can say of the impoverished societies in East Asia that much of the explanation might be that they were not included in this globalization; clearly, that explanation does not hold for West Africa (and, I suspect, for some sub-Saharan East Africa as well).

This also ties in with an observation I have had in much other recent reading as well:  countries that wind up in an unequal economic relationship in which they become “one-trick ponies” dependent on things such as gold or coffee or bananas typically don’t fare as well in the long run, as the value of these is much more volatile and prone to long strings of bad luck, and often is superseded as tastes or technologies change.  So Argentina with its specialization in beef, Latin and Central America with its colonial focus on gold and silver, Puerto Rico with its history of specializing in whatever the US felt was its proper commodity, West Africa for slaves, El Salvador with switching over to coffee production and then finding it could no longer provide subsistence agriculture for its population, not to mention the great difficulty in the US before about 1815 in breaking out of its unequal “enforced commoditization” relationship with Great Britain.  We view countries like Saudi Arabia with its ability to convert oil into a thriving economy as the norm, whereas they should perhaps be viewed from a global economic point of view as an exception.

I believe that we should perhaps view this kind of almost-zero-benefit unequal relationship as a fundamental feature of capitalism – because in many of the cases cited, the workings of trade and capitalism were proceeding to some extent independent of government action.  We have congratulated ourselves on the rising tide of capitalism floating the boats of all nations willing to participate in global markets on capitalistic terms – if we are talking about countries producing computer chips, perhaps this is so; if oil, pace Venezuela, the picture is very mixed; if coffee, it seems not to be true.  And the danger of capitalism is that, once a country commits to a particular narrowing of its economy, it may become harder rather than easier to recover from having the wrong product to export.  

I find this to be a sobering thought.  It suggests that rather than demanding a country or region fit into the needs of capitalism, sustainable economics will require that capitalism fit the needs of the country: e.g., diversified, sustainable agriculture to be enforced as the cheapest long-run product.  It also suggests that a world economy that is a mix of governmental technocratic command-and-control and capitalism will actually do better in some cases than a capitalism-focused economy.  Certainly Sweden suggests so.

Analysis of Bowles/Cardin:  Economics as a Branch of Sociology


Over the last 10 years, the failures of many economists in the face of the Great Recession have led to calls to fundamentally rethink economics as a discipline and as it is taught.  The recent white paper by Bowles and Cardin represents a comprehensive way that strands of economics that are presently treated as patches to economic models can instead be viewed as the essentials of a different way of looking at economics and teaching it.

Again, it is worth quoting the abstract:  “new problems now challenge the content of our introductory courses:  these include mounting economic disparities [income and wealth inequality], climate change, concerns about the future of work, and financial instability”; to which I would add that these also challenge the effectiveness of present macro- and micro-economics in guiding the analyst and decision-maker.  What I believe the introductory textbook cited does is to place existing but under-used “tools” at the center of economic analysis – specifically, “strategic interaction, [operations of markets in cases of] limited information, principal-agent models, new [real-world] behavioral foundations [that can determine what economic models best fit real-world data], and dynamic processes including instability and path-dependence.”  

By using word-frequency analysis, Bowles/Cardin establish clear differences between this and two previous generations of economics introductory textbooks as a proxy for the economic linguae franca of our world, the two previous generations being Samuelson’s post-WW II textbook and the recent textbooks of Krugman/Wells and Mankiw.  In other words, the new textbook and the new approach to economics really are in some sense fundamentally different.  

I would argue that the differences derive mostly from this:  the tone and organization of the new textbook really treat economics as a branch of sociology.  That is, they start with an analysis of economic group behavior as it shows up in current issues, not with a model of economic processes that then attempts to shoehorn in real-world data by assumptions such as rationality and self-interest.  The result is a stance that asks where government regulation, command-and-control, operation outside the economy, and more unfettered markets are appropriate, rather than a treatment of the first four as patches to assumed (but rarely if ever achieved in the real world!) perfectly competitive “free” markets.

Here’s a (to me, startling) example of the new thinking:  “it is impossible to write enforceable contracts for worker effort in an information-scarce environment,” so “firms will set wages so that there is always a cost of job loss for workers [i.e., a little higher than they might, so that workers clearly have an incentive to work because they care about their relative income when laid off or in another job] … As a result, there is involuntary unemployment at the equilibrium of the labor market.  This is not … a deviation … caused by … wage rigidities, minimum wages, monopsony, or unions … the intersection of demand and supply functions does not exist and is [replaced] by the Nash equilibrium of strategically interacting principals (employers) … and agents (employees).”  We’re not on Wall Street anymore, are we, Toto?

Implications of Both


It seems to me that both Green and Bowles/Cardin share one suggestion about the future of economics:  It is no longer adequate to see capitalism as the answer to everything, to view it as everywhere superior to the alternatives, now and in the future.  Rather, both suggest that we are dealing with a world in which, historically and now, government, capitalism, command/control, and non-economic activity are necessary parts, all of which must be viewed as operating in more and less effective ways than the others in both the short and the long run.
In particular, I view this as a challenge from economics to that peculiar libertarian dream, of combining little or no government with “free” markets.  What Green and Bowles/Cardin are saying is that capitalism alone will lead to bad outcomes, if not to a reinstitution of (poorer) government by the capitalist in his or her own interests.  I view bitcoin/blockchain as a direct confirmation of this:  the ideal of self-regulating contracts, money, and markets simply leads to inefficiencies, greater imbalances between principal and agent, theft by hackers, and Ponzi schemes preying on the limited information of investors.  

But I also gain hope from both of these texts.  If there is a hope of sustainable economies in the future, it begins with placing the cart of capitalism behind the horse of sustainability, and accompanied by the carts of government, our own personal and societal efforts, and WW-II-like command/control of parts of the economy, at least in the short run. 

It may not be the Grand Unified Theory of Economics, to replace what was smashed in 2008.  But at least, for the first time in a long, long time, we might be beginning to say that what economics teaches us reflects fairly well what we see with our own two eyes in the real world – the altruism and its benefits, the self-centeredness and its costs, less obscured by frantic handwaving and theories.

Final note:  in rereading this, I find I have underplayed the role of innovation/technology in the “new economics”.  For those curious about this, I suggest they sample the CORE introductory economics textbook referenced above, available online.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Joe Romm’s “Climate Change - What Everyone Needs to Know”, Second Edition: Maybe the Best CC Book Right Now


Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Just a brief note after my previous post.  I have just finished “Climate Change”, and imho it may be the best book for the general reader trying to get up to speed with the latest science and what’s going on with climate change mitigation and adaptation. 

It’s in the format of posing questions and then answering them, which can clarify what you’re really discussing in a section, but can be a little confusing when you’re trying to follow the overall argument.  Not too confusing, tho’.

As can be seen from my previous post, the only really new things in it for me that mattered were around the latest findings on permafrost, methane, and the like.  But Room is surprisingly good on energy efficiency and hydrogen-powered vehicles (a wasted section, since it becomes clear early on in the section that they’re not worth considering in any real depth unless a technological breakthrough occurs).  Moreover, his cautionary notes on biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power go beyond the usual discussions.

It’s not light reading; but it’s not tough slogging, either.  I suggest giving it a try.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Putting an Upper Bound on Climate Change: Permafrost


Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

When trying to figure out the most likely rate of global warming in our “business as usual” society, I always go back to that amusing quote from the movie version of Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring:  “Are you scared?  Not scared enough!”  The reason I remember this is that up to now, all of our scientific models of how climate change will play out over the next 100 years or so have consistently underestimated the rate of warming, not to mention the rate at which weather extremes have become the “new abnormal”.  And the reasons for this underestimation in the scientific community, from what I can tell, are (a) conservatism (even though the modeler may know that an effect will add to global warming, until the effect can be bounded with 95% likelihood in a positive direction it is assumed to have neither positive nor negative effect) and (b) lack of knowledge (for example, for a long time, the effect of increased cloudiness on global warming was not clearly understood).

Over time, these certainties and uncertainties in models have tended to be sorted out into the categories of Donald Rumsfeld’s pernicious classification:  knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns:

1.       The knowns are now, effectively, all those direct effects (e.g., the direct effect of CO2 and methane on global warming) and feedback or “knock-on” effects (e.g., the effect of release of black carbon by wildfires on decreasing Arctic albedo, where global warming from CO2 increase causes increased wildfires, which causes black carbon to fall on snow and ice, decreasing Arctic albedo and hence causing more Arctic warming).

2.       The known unknowns are those effects that we know will play a role, but which are not incorporated in models because we don’t know the extent of the role they will play.  Of these, perhaps the largest ones are (i) melting permafrost and (ii) methane (CH4) releases other than from permafrost melting, including methane clathrates, release of methane locked in land and ocean repositories, and release of methane from human action, including cow emissions and natural-gas processing emissions.

3.       The unknown unknowns are, obviously, effects that we probably can’t anticipate until they happen.  We can, however, take a guess at them by looking at the relationship between CO2 atmospheric emissions and global temperature during the last two major rises in CO2 – 250 million years ago (mya) and 55 mya (the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, also known as “hell and high water”).  If known unknowns turn into knowns, then the difference between what our models tell us will happen and what past experience suggests is probably due to unknown unknowns.
  
If we can turn the known unknowns into knowns, there appears to be a reasonable prospect that the revised models will track with past PETM (and other) experience, which would mean that the unknown unknowns probably don’t have a significant impact on global warming one way or the other.  In fact, the only remaining known unknown upside to be accounted for might be the fact that we are accelerating carbon emissions at a far greater pace than they have ever increased before.  The usual thinking is that this may speed up the process of actual global temperature warming, (e.g., in our case, a doubling of atmospheric carbon since 1850 should lead to a 2-2.8 degree C temperature increase in the next 100 years, and a total 4 degrees C temperature increase over the next 1000 years, rather than a 1200-year gradual doubling leading to an increase of 1.3 degrees C by 100 years from now, but with the same total 4 degrees C increase at the end), although it is possible that our rush to emit carbon will trigger unknown unknowns that will lead to an even greater rise in temperature at the end of each doubling.  In a nutshell:  with permafrost and methane accounted for, we would begin to see a plausible upper bound for the amount of long-term global warming from increased atmospheric CO2 and related greenhouse-gas emissions.

In long-ago posts, I said that research seemed to suggest that increased methane emissions would not deliver a major boost to global warming.  Without going into horrendous detail, I saw the research as suggesting that if even if methane clathrates, sea-floor methane, and permafrost methane suddenly started rising into the atmosphere a very high rates over the next 100 years, it was still unlikely that methane would achieve “saturation” in the atmosphere, which would cause methane to stay in the atmosphere much longer and therefore have a much greater warming effect – perhaps as much as 1 degree F while it lasted.  Nothing in the second edition of Joe Romm’s “Climate Change:  What Everyone Needs to Know” (summarizing findings as of early 2018) suggests that this scientific consensus has changed.

And so, I would argue, getting at the likely effect of melting all the permafrost gives us a reasonable shot at an upper bound for the most likely effects from “business as usual” increases in carbon emissions.  Or, as I like to say, we may finally know how scared is scared enough.

New Findings on Permafrost


Only nine years ago, it wasn’t clear that permafrost melting was happening yet.  Now, it’s not only clear that it’s happening, it seems to be happening faster than anticipated.   So a plausible upper bound for global warming is increasingly seeming more like a “middle bound” – the most likely case – for business-as-usual global warming.

Here’s a back-of-the-envelope SWAG at the effects of full permafrost melt.  According to “Climate Change”, there are 1.5 trillion tons of carbon locked in the world’s permafrost.  Studies cited in CC also suggest that for each 90 tons of permafrost carbon released, atmospheric carbon goes up about 60-80 ppm.  Thus, total melt means about 1000-1333 ppm of added atmospheric carbon.
 

The effect on global warming then depends on how fast it happens and what else is going on.  More specifically, if melt is fast, then most of its effect falls within the first two doublings of atmospheric carbon.  Thus, very loosely, with a 2 degree C direct effect of non-permafrost added atmospheric carbon on temperatures, we are talking about somewhere around a 4 degree C direct effect of total permafrost melt.

But direct effects of carbon are not the only effects.  A significant proportion of the carbon in permafrost will almost certainly be emitted as methane (CH4), not carbon dioxide.  While much of this will eventually turn into CO2 in the atmosphere, the rise in per-decade atmospheric methane during quick permafrost melt can add up to another degree C to warming over centuries-to-millenia time periods, because methane can be up to 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.  And the lack of snow cover and increased vegetation associated with the peat bogs likely to be a result of permafrost melt mean a shift in albedo that, to my mind, should significantly up global warming as well.  In sum, aggressive total permafrost melt seems to me at first glance to result in an average 4-6 degrees C of global warming for at least the next 1000 years – and, considering the unknown unknowns, that may be conservative.

It should be pointed out that if we are effective in ending business-as-usual global warming in the near future, much less of the permafrost will ultimately melt.   At another SWAG, we may have locked in melt of 5% of permafrost already (the result of non-permafrost feedbacks adding 0.5 degrees C to the temperature henceforward plus the effects of additional heating from initial permafrost melt).  The rest is still in play.

Glimpses of an Upper Bound


What strikes me about this estimate (4-6 degrees C) is that it seems to fit in more nicely both with the experience of past catastrophic global warming and with recent Hansen papers trying to set an upper bound.  In the PETM, carbon ppm started at about 1000 and apparently went up to about 2000, but the temps seem to have gone up 6 degrees C in the process, 4 degrees more than direct atmospheric carbon effects can explain.  One recently raised suggestion is that elimination of stratocumulus clouds, which should thin out as air temps get warmer, can add 8 degrees C to global warming.   But this is not likely to take effect until well beyond the 1000 ppm level, below which aggressive permafrost melt plays its major role.

In trying to square the PETM with the likely direct effects of atmospheric carbon, Hansen conjectured, iirc, that each doubling of atmospheric carbon would lead, without human interference, to a little more than 2 degrees C of direct effects plus a little less than 2 degrees C of feedback effects, for a total of 4 degrees C.  But the feedback effects he identified only seemed applicable to the first doubling (to 550-odd ppm), and the temps in the PETM seemed too high, imho, for a 2000-ppm atmospheric carbon level.  Some combination of permafrost melt and cloud thinning, with permafrost melt playing its major role before 1000 ppm (at the time of the late Cretaceous global warming 11 million years before, with loss of sea ice and therefore probably loss of permafrost) and cloud thinning after, may therefore explain some of the PETM warming (whether it played a role in the global warming/mass extinction 250 mya, which involved a super-continent with no extreme north or south land, is not clear).

This also squares with another Hansen paper (iirc). In it, he argues that using up most of our present fossil fuel reserves will lead ultimately to 16 degrees C/30 degrees F average warming, or 30 degrees C/54 degrees F average warming in the Arctic and Antarctic.

All of the above statements contain large fudge factors, of course, and can be and are argued over.  However, I do now believe it is much more probable now that something like this upper bound is in store for us, if business as usual continues indefinitely. 

Implications for Armageddon


With all of the above in mind, I like to think of the worst as four stages – horrible, catastrophic, apocalyptic, and decimating, the first three corresponding to doublings of atmospheric carbon, and the last comprising only feedback effects.  Aggressive permafrost melt gives the second and third stages, which have yet to arrive, a similar warming effect over time to our first stage.  And that arbitrary classification leads to a couple of assertions:

1.       Each stage is much worse in its effects than the previous one; and

2.       Each stage becomes harder to prevent or ameliorate than the previous one.  In a sense, each stage adds momentum and size to the downward rolling snowball, because (a) new feedback effects are triggered, like permafrost melt and Arctic/Antarctic ice melt, (b) saturation effects start occurring, like inability of the ocean to store oxygen or saturation of atmospheric methane leading to longer stays in the air, and (c) our ability to mitigate is increasingly hindered by having to undo greater  amounts of now-inappropriate fossil-fuel infrastructure and optimized-for-the-wrong-temperature energy-inefficient dwellings.

      And that is why I disagree with both the optimists and pessimists.  Yes, failure to undo business as usual is rife in the air.  Yes, we may well have effectively crossed the boundary into Stage 2, with horrible effects of climate change already locked in.  Yes, the ultimate end of Stage 4 may well be the decimation of the human race and the rest of the natural world.  But until 100 or 200 years from now, we still have the ability to break utterly the cycle of business as usual, harder though it gets as time goes by.  And therefore every setback in our quest demands not despair but a fiercer effort, more confrontation of the guilty, and greater demands for even more to be done.
It’s like a crooked poker game.  Yes, right now it’s the only game in town, and yes, right now you can’t win or fold, just keep on losing.  But the game will end, and your job is to lose as little as possible, as the stakes go up and up, so that when the game is over you may have lost your heart’s desire but you will not be an indebted slave for life, or killed because you couldn’t pay your debt.  Or most of the effects may fall on your great-great-grandchildren; but they’re still the same shattering effects.  On everybody.

Oh, and one extremely small hopeful note:  it seems to me that to avoid business as usual resurfacing at any time over the next 1000 years, we will have to change fundamentally.  To sustainability.  To a method of living that almost certainly will not destroy the remainder of humanity.  Stage 4 will be as bad as it gets.

And so, hopefully, understanding the effects of permafrost and having a likely upper bound means you are scared enough.  Absolutely, totally scared stiff.  With decimation staring you in the face.  And so, said the psychiatrist in Portnoy’s Complaint, now ve may perhaps to begin, yes?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Reading New Thoughts: The Usefulness of Altruism


Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

New books by Alice Roberts (“Taming”) and E.O. Wilson (“Genesis”) seem to me to deliver a different, nuanced reason to appreciate that old religious warhorse, altruism.  Both of these draw on recent advances in genetics that I have written about elsewhere; in fact, “Taming” specifically attempts to summarize recent advances in “genetic history” (determining the likely course of events that led to domestication of animals such as the chicken and flora such as the apple tree).  Moreover, both specifically apply their insights to humans, and to humans’ distinctiveness from our close relatives the apes, in areas such as altruism.

What I think that both have in common is that they find that evolutionary strategies that run counter to the apparent evolutionary imperatives of individual survival and reproduction are actually relatively successful strategies for group (and hence species) survival and reproduction.  Thus, in Wilson’s assessment, humans are one of the seventeen or so known species (e.g., bees and mole rats) in which a certain percentage of members of the group set aside (temporarily or permanently) their own reproduction and/or survival needs and act to support the survival, reproduction, and success of their group.  In Roberts’ provocative telling, humans have been domesticating themselves, compared to apes, by dulling the intra- and inter-group aggression that would ordinarily prevent us from coexisting in cities.

Now, both of these books may represent a “bridge too far”:  their conclusions in this regard probably go beyond what we will ultimately see as the true role of altruism in an effective society.  Wilson in particular seems to shoehorn humans awkwardly into the “eusocial” category (defined by a reviewer as including overlap of generations, cooperative brood-care, and non-reproductive “helpers”)  when most or all of his seventeen other species offer more clear-cut examples.  Likewise, Roberts seems to go beyond the evidence in finding parallels between the “immaturation” of the dog and the chicken that apparently bred for a longer nurturing phase so they wouldn’t avoid humans and could take advantage of our agricultural and hunting largess, and our own long period of growing up.  Nevertheless, I do think that they present new insights into the advantages of altruism in our daily lives.

Wilson and Milton


When I look at Wilson’s thoughts in “Genesis”, I am reminded of the last line of Milton’s “On His Blindness”:  “They also serve who stand and wait.”  The point is that most animals are usually part of a group, if only a family group, and that group typically has a leader. But in the species described by Wilson, the “eusocial” members of the group are not passively accepting the commands of their leader (“Thousands at His bidding speed”, says Milton) but actively choosing a semi-permanent role as acting for the good of the rest of the group without waiting for direction, rather than emphasizing their own reproduction, and, in some cases, their own survival.  In other words, “eusociality” is not enforced servitude, but rather a differentiated role within the group contrary to the interest of the “selfish gene” within the individual.

This approach to evolutionary success is not common – after all, we’ve found only seventeen species examples of this.  Nevertheless, according to Wilson, this is apparently a relatively successful strategy:  the reduced individual breeding is more than countered by the increased chance of survival and therefore reproduction of the group.  Moreover, this “division of labor” is sometimes, as in the case of humans, relatively flexible, and therefore reduces the risk of population disaster – that is, in times of population strain the homosexual or celibate can take part in reproduction.

And therefore, far from being a threat to humanity, eusociality argues that the LGBTQ individual or voluntary celibate is a blessing – in moderation, of course.  Not to mention the “nurturers”, “caretakers”, “helpers”, and “defenders” we all see around us.  In evolutionary terms, that their own reproduction (and sometimes, as well, their own survival) is not the central meaning of their lives is a good thing, when balanced with the drive towards individual survival and reproduction of the rest of us.  The eusocial species thrives in the long run, all else being equal, compared to the rest, because when disaster strikes, the eusocial individual’s focus is on somebody in the group surviving, rather than on the safety of oneself or one’s family.

Infantilizing Aggression


One of the key points made by Roberts about the process of “taming” is that in the case of animals (e.g., wolf/dog, chicken/bird, and boar/pig) it was often a matter of self-breeding to minimize both aggression/”fight” and avoidance/”flight” in order to cooperate with humans in activities such as hunting and herding.  In other words, wolves in a pack that were less likely to attack or avoid humans were more likely to share in the benefits of human kills, and therefore had a survival advantage over their wilder counterparts.  These wolves may have tended to have longer stretches of life in which they were “growing up”, i.e., with less aggression and less stress on survival by avoidance.  The end result of this evolutionary process – dogs – therefore show signs of what we might call “permanent immaturity” compared to their wolf relatives, including longer maturation.

Roberts then goes on to note that compared to our close relatives the apes, we likewise have a longer period of immaturity, a “final state” of the evolutionary process involving less aggressiveness and avoidance.  This “infantilization of aggression” allows adults to behave towards each other as dogs to humans:  with lower-aggression relationships, lower avoidance of each other (compare that to cats!), and a greater ability to cooperate and perform services for each other as part of that cooperation.  Of course, as with dogs, the aggression towards prey species remains, and spills over into inter-species interactions – just not as strongly.

Cities – now the habitat of at least half of the human race – represent the extreme case of that tamping down of aggression and avoidance.  On the streets of New York City at rush hour, we are assaulted with the close proximity of thousands of our fellow creatures every day – and yet almost all of the millions in NYC manage to avoid either undue aggression or “getting away from it all” over the course of a long lifetime.

And in situations like this, I argue, altruism is a useful strategy for tamping down residual aggression and avoidance.  Yes, the altruist who “reaches out” across groups in a very crowded situation can be punished for seeming aggressive or overly vulnerable; but since the motivation is to provide disinterested services to the other group, it’s the type of interaction least likely to trigger “fight or flight” from the opposing group.  Whatever we may say of politicians as a group, on the regional and national  level the more altruistic politician does, I think, perform a vital service by this kind of cross-group altruism.

Of Myss And Altruistic Men


But how does this “genetic history” apply today?  I have no good data points, but I have an odd one:  Caroline Myss’ 2001 book, “Sacred Contracts.”  This is a fascinating “New Age” attempt to combine Jungian psychology with eclectic religion and apply it to self-help.  The book is shot through with altruistic archetypes drawn from myth and story, like the Knight and the Nun, applied to the modern world – as well as, of course, self-interested archetypes like the Child and the Queen/King.

What I find notable in this book from the point of view of the practical usefulness of altruism are the extensive case studies of individuals seeking to achieve meaning in fully modern lives, complete with concerns about surviving and thriving in work and businesses.  To a surprising extent, not only women but also men tackle entrepreneurship and choice of career with a primary motive of “doing good for others,” as shown by their choice of altruistic rather than self-interested archetypes to describe themselves. This not only evidences the first level of empathy, as I discussed in my recent series on Tolkien in Daily Kos, but also that altruistic motives are more common than I thought even in the cutthroat competitive worlds of business and lawyering.

This requires a little unpacking, I think.  Back in 1980 when I was at business school, a survey asked us what our primary goal in business was:  power, money, or altruism (e.g., non-profit businesses)?  Interestingly, those seeking power tended to wind up with a bit more money than those seeking money directly, according to the surveyers.  But perhaps 20%, even in a business school, said they were in it for altruistic purposes.  And what Myss shows is that even those in the power and money categories aren’t necessarily seeking to run businesses just to gain power or money, whether for survival or self-gratification; they also may seek to use that power and money in the long run for altruistic as well as selfish purposes.

Now, before you think I have gone all soft and mushy, I freely concede that this is a flawed sample.  Yes, the people in Myss’ book are for the most part predisposed to think of their goals in altruistic terms.  Yes, the book is 20 years out of date, and the world by some measures may seem more self-absorbed than ever.

Nevertheless, I think that the message it conveys is more true than not.  The first two books argue the usefulness of altruism to our species, in the long run.  Myss’ case studies suggest, I think, that in the very short run and in practical terms, altruism, properly balanced, is a positive benefit to us all in our daily lives.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Different Look at Philosophy: Plato/Socrates


Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

I want to accomplish something on my birthday (I know, I’m weird), and so I thought I’d start a series I have thought about for a while on the true value (imho) of philosophy.  The trigger for this is a very nice book my son James got as a prize a while back and I found among his leavings when he left home:  Bryan Magee’s The Great Philosophers.  It provides, I think, a nice overview of the way that the “main stream” of philosophy has evolved over the centuries, and some suggestions as to how this should impact us.

I confess that I read it differently from most, as someone who read Plato’s early writings “for fun” as a teenager, and then Aristotle and Locke as part of my undergraduate training in Harvard’s version of political science (Harvard called it Government), as well as having a nodding acquaintance with brief descriptions of pragmatism and the like.  At the same time, I was getting a very quirky view of science from my training in computer hardware, as well as a connection between philosophy and science because of Quine’s formalizations of logic as presented in an undergraduate course – not to mention the connection of both science and philosophy to mathematics in the works of Godel and Turing and their heirs.

Thus, in reading Magee after all these years, I asked myself not the typical question – how can philosophy help me in leading a better life – but rather, how does philosophy still add value in an age where science is indeed providing a firm foundation of understanding of ourselves and the physical and chemical world, and increasingly taking the lead in suggesting how things can be done better.  And it seemed to me, reading Magee, that one theme of the book was that philosophy was needed because science simply had no answers to many questions about the nature of the world and ourselves – an answer I disagree with, based on the many scientific advances in my lifetime on things like what dreaming does, or how our internal clock works.

Setting the Stage


Here’s what I argue:  Along with its role in our internal wrestlings about how to live the good life, philosophy should also be seen as a counterpoint to the slow development of what we now call the scientific method.  Here I note that I am using the term scientific method in a very broad sense:  As not only the techniques of experiment, peer-reviewed publication and verification, and statistical analysis that have come to be accepted as individual practices, but also the broader community and bureaucracy that coordinates and revises the overall model of the physical/chemical world that science is establishing.  Thus, my scientific method is not only an individual guideline but a community-wide, evolving process.

Philosophy can be seen as such a counterpoint because one of the recurring themes of philosophy as per Magee is “thinking about thinking”:  examining such questions as, what can we know for certain, and how can we be sure that what we are thinking is the truth, e.g., the truth of reality, of the physical and chemical world.  And that matters in the history of the development of the scientific method because what is going on, it appears to me, is what we call in computer science “bootstrapping”:  establishing a certain set of facts, then using them to establish others, and so on, until we begin to have a full-fledged, comprehensive model to work with – of a computer, in bootstrapping a computer operating system, or of scientific reality, in science.  And so, in the development of the scientific method, philosophy could serve a useful role by saying, are you sure of these facts?  Are you sure that the next facts follow?  Are you sure that your preliminary model captures reality?  Is your logic solid, and does it reflect what is going on?

I am not sure that I am doing justice to what was a grand and scary project:  To capture reality when you are sure neither of the validity of what you see in front of you nor of your own thoughts.  In this project, from the point at least of Plato in “western civilization”, whatever that is, onwards, philosophy offered at least one lingua franca to the budding scientist, one common way of thinking across the scientific community about establishing and testing validity and models.

But I would also be remiss if I didn’t say what I viewed as a key flaw of philosophy:  its emphasis on this being an individual or small-group endeavor, the “hard internal wrestlings of the soul” of Wedgwood’s Oliver Cromwell, or the symposia of Plato and Julius Caesar.  The development of the scientific method has made it clear that it must be exceptionally broad in all its doings, in order to capture the very different experiences and worldviews that allow us to triangulate an approximation of reality.  And the obvious example of this is the demonstrated enormous value of incorporating fully in the scientific method the female perspective, as has not been done historically in all cultures.  Philosophy simply has by its very individualistic nature failed to adequately detect differences in thinking when it assumes commonality with the thinking of a Plato or a Nietzsche (we all desire “the good”, or we are all innately determined by our origins and our lowest common denominator is pretty pathetic).

So I want to set forth my viewpoint on what role the thinking of those philosophers was playing (and should play now) in the evolution of our understanding of the scientific method – because I feel that in some ways, far more than being a guide to our behavior, that is the value of philosophy to us.  Or, to put it another way, the value of philosophy is potentially much more in reassuring us that scientific truth is indeed truth, than in helping us use that truth to determine what is the good life we want to strive for; because at this point science and common sense are better guides to getting at the good life.  In any case, I want to start with Plato, and Socrates as described by Plato.

Plato and Socrates


As presented by Magee, Plato has three “periods”: an initial period of trying to present the thoughts of Socrates (e.g., Symposium), a second period of elaborating on those thoughts to present positive answers to the questions that Socrates raised (e.g., Republic), and finally a period of “academically” analyzing and challenging the results of periods 1 and 2 (e.g., Timaeus).  Magee summarizes by saying “Platonism is a philosophy you can use … if you want to see how scientific and spiritual values can be reconciled.”  He says this because, fundamentally, Plato is an “anti-materialistic” philosopher who believes that truth goes beyond what can be captured by the scientific method.  Specifically, in his “theory of Forms”, as interpreted by later generations, Plato argues that in some sense the general concept of “chairness” or “virtue” exists independent of us.  This, in turn, in theology leads to the requirement the Greeks appear to have imposed on the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions that God be “perfect”, not flawed by human imperfections, and thus to things like angels, djinns, and “the Word.”

At the same time, the program laid out in Plato’s Republic is a program for eliciting the mathematical symmetries and “order” that Plato believed were inherent in Nature, and is therefore the fountainhead of Plato’s school, which led to Aristotle and an attempt at a systematized model of physical reality as corresponding to those symmetries.

To me, however, the most lasting contribution of that philosophy in the area of “thinking about thinking” and the scientific method is the inculcation in the scientific method of “Socratic questioning”.

The Socratic Method


The Socratic method, still used afaik in law schools as in the Constitutional Law taught by my father or possibly as shown in the Paper Chase TV series, seems now effectively to be a way of shaking up college graduates’ thinking by showing how easy generalizations can lead one astray.  Or, as Magee puts it, “They try to think about it; they produce an answer.  Socrates shows the inadequacy of the answer.  You end up not with a firm answer, but with a greater grasp of the problem than before.”

There is a striking analogy here to the programmer’s practice of debugging one’s own or another’s code.  Effectively, you know there is a bug, but you also know that you will probably not be able to understand the code fully and objectively enough to see the flaw immediately.  Instead, you argue backwards from a wrong output to a point in the software’s logic that your experience with code and bugs tells you is a likely reason for the problem, and then try a different approach at that point.  In the same way, Socrates says, we don’t need to examine in detail your idea, instead, let’s look at something that doesn’t fit your generalization or model of reality (causes the wrong output); now let’s examine your logic to see what the problem might be, and try a new approach.

Following the analogy with programming further, I would suggest that Socrates is introducing the notion of “design-time debugging” – which, programming practice shows, is often more effective at producing relatively bugless logic than debugging after the program is run through the compiler (pre-testing) or used at runtime (testing in the real world).  But note that this tests not the inputs to the program or scientific theory (it doesn’t test the validity of the data from the real world); rather, it tests the logical steps by which that input is turned into a testable output.  Thus, iirc, Socrates combats the notion that slaves may be incapable of rational thought by adducing the example of a slave taught to mimic Greek by imitation of the sounds of a flute; but since no one is communicating in the slave’s native tongue or considering the possibility that another language is equally productive of rational thought, the whole exercise is scientifically useless.  You have a greater grasp of the problem; but in this case you have no better grasp of the solution.

And this, I would argue, is why the Platonic/Socratic approach is at once a major advance in and a major limitation on the scientific method.  One the one hand, debugging the logic of a model of reality as an approach to testing its validity is, even in our day, an underemphasized skill – hence the usefulness of the “causality debugging” in Judea Pearl’s work.  On the other hand, focusing on this aspect of the task and ignoring the importance of materialism, i.e., the problem of the validity of real-world data and our ability to apprehend it, takes us away from the sort of experimental carefulness that we now know to be vital to establishing scientific truth.  Moreover, the process of like-minded individual challenge rather than peer review, attractive though it is to thinkers in all ages, still fails to achieve the quality goals of scientific research because it fails to bring in a broad enough spectrum of experience.  Or, to put it another way, the rogue scientist must present his (yes, in those days, pretty much universally his) finding of a fossil as a question about whether this fits under earth, air, fire, or water rather than as a new category calling for a fundamentally new model.

Two steps forward, one step back.  Let’s go on, next time, to consider the next development:  Aristotle.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

CO2, 2018 – And Its Sad Implications


Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
The results are in for CO2 measured at Mauna Loa (more or less the real measure of how we’re doing vs. climate change) – and the answer (no surprise) is, our best efforts are not clearly making a dent in “business as usual”.  Add that to recent research suggesting that another 50 years of “business as usual” may lead to the ultimate “hell and high water”, by wiping out key cloud types shielding us from the sun (at about 1200 ppm of CO2) and thus adding another 8 or so degrees C on top of the 6 or 7 degrees we would achieve at 1200 ppm, and our task becomes ever more urgent.

The figure for 2018 is 2.86 ppm increase in atmospheric CO2.  This is the third increase above 2.6 ppm in the last four years, and the fourth (out of 5 in history) such increase in the last 7 years.  In other words, not only is the amount of rise increasing, but the percentage of rise is, as well – telling us that we are in fact accelerating our carbon “pollution.”

Nor is this year showing signs of being better than 2018.  This February is up by 3.4 ppm over last February, and March has seen several readings above 414 ppm (the “moving average” of CO2 Mauna Loa readings is now a hair’s breadth below 411 ppm).  Basically, this is a rate at which readings above 420 ppm are two years away, above 430 ppm 5 or 6 years away, and we will have almost doubled our atmospheric CO2 by 2050 from its level in the 1800s.  That in turn, could mean perhaps double or triple the rise in temperature (2 – 4 degrees C) that we have seen thus far (thus far, 1.2-1.3 degrees C).

About the only good news is that Arctic sea ice decrease seems to be taking a breather.  Ice maximum seems to be leveling off and despite the underlying ocean heat-up, melt season is cloudier and therefore ice minimum seems to be leveling off as well.

Here in New England, nothing about our unprecedented winter has surprised me, neither the lack of snow that stuck until Feb. 12th nor the windiness nor the rapid onset of storms.  And another extremely hot, humid summer will not surprise me either.  There’s a reason they call it the “new abnormal.”

Once, when I was growing up, there was weather you could count on.  Now, our carbon pollution has put a stake in its heart.  And lit its pyre.