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What is to Be Done?

Perhaps that is not a very funny title, but it comes from this:

Huge Knowledge Gap

OK, I’ll bite. Not as hard as I used to, but I’ll bite.

What is needed is a mandatory course on ethics and the limits of knowledge

Well, “mandatory?” What is the meaning of mandatory? In any case I like the idea that everyone be encouraged to take it. Heck, that’s what used to happen at colleges, until that sort of thing was deemed unacceptable. I doubt Mr. Smith or many others are out there advocating everyone in every discipline take a methodology class and an ethics class (or some combined version), but it ought to happen. Of course, it also should happen in an unbiased setting. And remember, the limits of knowledge, and ethics, probably should be very respected by folks who plan to use the awesome powers of government to direct us in our affairs.

The models they learn in their college classes inform the way they think about the world, even if they don’t end up using them for quantitative purposes after final exams are over.

So, I teach at one of the top 50 universities in the country, and I can assure you that very few of our students take the “models” they learn in college classes and use that to inform the way they think about the world. Indeed, when college kids are tested on how much they learned in college, economics majors seem to do no better on the test a couple years after graduation than if they never took the major at all. And I can assure you that if I gave an impromptu exit exam to our students before we handed them their diplomas in a few weeks, we’d be left with an excess of paper before the ceremony ended. And is there empirical support for Mr. Smith’s claim? Has he at least done a representative survey of professionals to ask them about how they think about the world? Furthermore, does it matter what kids come into college classes thinking about the world? Because not only does it not appear that they do not learn much in college, they seem to come into college with pretty rigid views of how the world works. So should we now start pushing down this discussion earlier into the students’ careers? And which ones?

They learn plenty of models, but they aren’t often taught to think critically about what they learn. At best, they absorb a few ideas from offhand comments by their professors, or from the tone of their textbooks. As a result, many of them leave class with deep reservations over whether economics theories represent real science, or whether economists approach the world in a moral, socially responsible manner.

Again, assuming we can believe much of this, what evidence is there for it? Does it have anything to do with economics? Also, when students walk into a non-economics class, do students leave those classes with deep reservations over whether the theories they are learning there represent real science, or whether their professors approach the world in a moral, socially responsible manner?

We’ll get to the rest in the future.  I find the general topic of epistemology and ethics to be fantastically important, but I do not believe this treatment is doing the issue justice.


More like windbag at times. Now on page 104:

If private firefighting sounded like a libertarian dream — private industry stepping in where government falls short — in fact it was just that. As California burned, Adam B. Summers of the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank historically funded by Shell, BP, Exxon-Mobil, and the climate change denying Koch Brothers, …

It gets boring, doesn’t it? As if any of that is an actual argument for anything. Call me persuaded.

In the 1950s, Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where Are They?” And that question spurred a great deal of thought and interest in the idea of whether extra-terrestrial life exists, and if it does exist why hasn’t it reached us yet, and the implications for our civilization if in fact it has not.

I just finished reading another sort of depression book on the environment, this one from McKenzie Funk discussing how rich countries and firms are going to profit from the coming damages from global warming. As a matter of fact, he does a fair job in assessing the efforts by firms and individuals to profit off of it, and realize that mitigation, meaningful mitigation, is a long way off, so it makes sense to try to deal with it. He also captures very effectively the deep inequalities that climate change damages are likely to create or exacerbate. We can debate how able people will be to adapt, but again the book does a nice job illustrating the expected challenges.

However, it becomes a tough slog at times, because once again it is dripping with disdain and some very uncharitable assertions. Here, for example, in discussing the rapid climate change that is coming (p. 6):

The change is so vast, so universal, that it seems to test the limits of human reason. So it should not be surprising that the ideologies that led us here, those that have guided the postindustrial age – techno-lust and hyper-individualism, conflation of growth with progress, unflagging faith in unfettered markets – are the same ones many now rely on as we try to find a way out.

Now, I would just like to find out where these people are with “unflagging faith in unfettered markets.” After all, I am as much of a market-person as you might find, and I actually think markets suck in large part because of institutional and structural constraints which prevent them from being excellent, and also because people sort are not awesome too. So where are these fundamentalists? It’s extremely tiring to read these comments day after day after day as if that constitutes some sort of critical analysis of what is going on. And sure, there are like five people on earth who have unflagging faith in unfettered markets, but I have never met them either. Furthermore, what does he mean by hyper-individualism? Again it is a term tossed around casually as if it is ipso facto true and ipso facto bad. Neither is obvious. Certainly the classical liberal conception of individualism is very much a pro-social construct, so that can’t be what he means, right? If by hyper-individualism he is referring to the mass rise in identity politics then sure, I am on board. If by hyper-individualism it is the “you do you” attitude that pervades, then sure, I am on board. But I do not think that is what he is referring to.

Why can’t one write a book on the profiting from global warming that isn’t dripping with unthoughtful assertions and deep skepticism of folks who may have different ideas? There is plenty to write about and it would be far more influential if this was the case.

Happy May Day

My thought for today … when I mention that this is a sad day, rather than engaging with the reality of socialism’s century of mass murder, I get something like, “but capitalists sell weapons to profit from war.” OK, sure.

(1) Who fights wars?

(2) Who sold Che Guevara his weapons?

Capitalists also sell beer which kills thousands of people. And cigarettes. And climbs to Mount Everest.

In an otherwise very good and very important article on the threats to migratory shorebirds, the entire point is diminished by the obligatory implication of climate change. Now, of course, climate change is going to change the location and content of marshes, estuaries, shorelines, and more. And climate change will slowly change the timing of when various food sources will appear, but climate change is most surely not the most serious risk, or near the top of risks, that these migratory shorebirds face.

Seriously, look at the picture leading off the article, it is a snipe caught in an illegal net.

Yet, in paragraph two, the FIRST item listed as the major threat?

These declines represent the No. 1 conservation crisis facing birds in the world today. Climate change, coastal development, the destruction of wetlands and hunting are all culprits. And because these birds depend for their survival, as we do, on the shorelines of oceans, estuaries, rivers, lakes, lagoons and marshes, their declines point to a systemic crisis that demands our attention, for our own good.

It’s not until paragraph twelve, long after most casual readers have lost attention, does the article get to the major challenges for these amazing creatures, and these are challenges well understood in the ecological community:

By far the greatest threats facing long-distance migratory shorebirds lie at the mid-migration stopover sites — wetlands and rich tidal mud flats serving as crucial refueling stations for millions of migratory shorebirds.

And then:

Areas along the Yellow Sea are being drained, dredged and filled in to create land for industry. More than 50 percent of the wetlands along China’s and South Korea’s coast have been eliminated.

And then:

The 20-mile-long Saemangeum sea wall, which closed off an estuary along South Korea’s southwest coast, directly caused the loss of tens of thousands of great knots, about a quarter of the global population.

And then:

Bird hunting remains rampant. Along the coast of China, illegal nets are erected every fall to capture shorebirds for human consumption.

And then:

Shorebirds also face increasing threats to their southern wintering grounds, mainly from relentless coastal development and habitat loss. The coastal habitats where bar-tailed godwits winter are being invaded by a rapidly growing human population. One study found much of the intertidal shorebird habitats here are not within environmentally protected areas.

I found the nest hatching times to be really interesting. My sense of course is that over a period of time, the nests will be populated earlier, in response to the earlier insect hatching – you even see a little of that in the chart, and we don’t see the last 6 years for what happened, which would be very interesting. Is this happening for the other 18 threatened species, or is this insect issue a problem for a few?

In any event, I think one of the major environmental issues that is least discussed and would likely deliver a lot of bang for out effort is managing land use and land use changes. I don’t think that is sexy and I don’t think land use is something that can easily be pinned upon some particular disfavored group, so it’s not as sexy an explanation as climate change.

But look, my wife and I love birds – our very first dates were at the Cornell Lab of O lectures delivered by famous Puffin expert Steve Kress, but if you love birds you really would be best served to better appreciate the risks. Tossing climate change into a list of far more serious and immediate threats is both going to turn people away from the issue (either because they are frustrated that everything is caused by climate change or because they know that we won’t do much about climate change and so the birds are toast) of how best to take care of bird populations but it is also going to undermine support for climate change. I wonder whether there was editorial pressure to add it in, because I think a very dramatic headline would have been, “Human Land Use and Destruction of Bird Habitat Pushing Shorebirds to Brink” would make a lot more sense. In any case, we continue along with the environmental head fakes, and we should not be surprised that more and more people are turning away from being interested.

Unicorn Hunting

Neither cleverness, nor stupidity, is predictable.

One of the most shocking reads from the past couple of years has been Thomas Leonard’s Illiberal Reformers. The book goes through, in gulp-worthy detail, the history of the rise of the “Progressive” movement’s support for various labor market interventions and immigration policies. Almost all of it is hard to reprint here, but the idea that the early Progressive movement was merely a populist wave aiming to improve the conditions of all Americans pretty much goes out the window even if only a fraction of what was in the book is true. Many of the leading Progressives, including the founders of the American Economic Association, the President of the United States, and many, many, many influential people were outright racist bigots, and authoritarian elitists and they implemented a wide range of policies to act upon their beliefs.

Now, if one reads this book and is sympathetic with the modern Progressive movement (I would think that this is how most modern liberals would describe themselves at a cocktail party), it is very easy to make the argument that, “well, that was 100 years ago, and the actions and beliefs of THOSE progressives ought not taint the actions and beliefs and positions of today’s modern progressives.” To that argument I’d like to suggest that I can buy that argument if it were in fact applied consistently, and if the ideas that fomented the rise of the Progressive movement were combated directly:

  1. How many folks who would make that argument would also be interested in granting the same dispensations to modern Americans who had ancestors who were responsible for some bad things in American history? For example, many white-Anglos were responsible for the brutal mistreatment of American Indians and of course for the brutal mistreatment of slaves. Many modern whites actually came to the US well after these atrocities, and of course there are many modern Americans who descended from the people who did these things. Why is it that modern Progressives are able to suggest that today’s Progressives not be tainted with the brutal practices and ideas of their intellectual forebears but that everyone else is not afforded the same dispensation?
  2. What about the time dimension is important? If we agree that today’s Progressive’s ideas are not harmful on their face because of the intellectual and actual history of the progressive movement, and that there ought not be “guilt by association” then how come that idea is not regularly applied when we collapse the time dimension? Or to be much clearer, I cannot tell you how many interactions I have had in the past year or two that have started with, “well, modern conservatives are racist, fascist bigots.” Or a popular reaction from people I talked to who have read this book is that, “I never realized that it wasn’t just the conservatives that were awful human beings,” etc I seriously have had people say this. But while in one breath it woudl be argued that the modern progressives ought not be tainted with the awful ideas and actions of their ancestors, why do we not see the same idea applied contemporaneously? Obviously there are some “conservatives” out there that seem to be authoritarian syndicalists, racists, etc. But by that virtue, anyone who adheres to more traditional Burkean conservative views must obviously be tarred with those views? To see if this is a decent thing to do, how about we do the following. We somehow manage to elect a new President on populist grounds, and then have them proceed to commit a series of unspeakable atrocities on the American people. After doing so, he tells everyone that he is a Progressive. Would you jump to the podium now arguing that all progressives are evil?

What is different about the time dimension that allows us to easily treat ideas and actions individually and not collectively, but changes when we are talking about how we treat our contemporaries? Finally, I do not think the actual and intellectual history of a movement ought to be ignored … it tool the Marxists about 70 years from the revolutions of 1848 until they were able to achieve a measure of political success, violent and awful as it was – but one reason they achieved success was that the acolytes of Engels and Marx vigorously promoted those ideas for 70 years and they were there for the picking when the time was ripe. A bad idea is a bad idea, and it must be remembered as such.

The annual student program at PERC is just fabulous. It really is aimed at students who have not have had much exposure to thinking about the environment through an economic lens, especially with an eye toward the role property rights play in environmental quality. It is a really fun, interactive program with students from a diverse set of intellectual backgrounds, and the field trips and Bozeman are obviously spectacular.

Applications are due on March 19.

Bryan Caplan makes the case in his new book that students are regularly bored, and much of what they learn in school is not very useful. I would add that not only is much of it not very useful, but that a non-negligible portion of it is wrong, false and harmful to developing our children’s reasoning skills. Here is the latest example from my son’s 5th grade class (and yes, emails asking if they would learn about “alternative views” or why so much energy focused on this particular issue and not other more important ones, have yet to be responded to):

Hello Parents,
[Our school] is excited for students to participate in our next STEAM Center Event, called “RECYCLE IT!”, happening February 27th, 28th , and March 2nd!  In our upcoming event, students will learn about “Single Stream” Recycling.  In our Recycling Lab, students will simulate the recycling experience using VEX Robots to sort recyclables.  Students will also cycle through stations where they will learn about what happens to plastics, glass, metals, and paper once they leave the Recycling Centers.
This event’s success relies on the help of our awesome volunteers!  Volunteers are needed to help students with:
  • Robots (Students will be using the robots to sort recyclables into bins so volunteers would need to observe and assist.)
  • Help lead a recyclable station with a craft (Explain to students what happens at the processing centers once the recyclables leave the facilities –don’t worry, slides and pictures will be printed out so parents just have to read them)!  A small craft will be done at each station.
We need 5 parent volunteers per classroom for each grade level teacher.   Each class will report to the STEAM Center room (103) on the day and time your teacher has signed up for.  Please use the link below to sign up :

From the Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 1, Chapter 2:

Why Are Atoms So Big?

Why are atoms so big? Why is the nucleus at the center with the electrons around it? It was first thought that this was because the nucleus was so big; but no, the nucleus is very small. An atom has a diameter of about 10−810−8 cm. The nucleus has a diameter of about 10−1310−13 cm. If we had an atom and wished to see the nucleus, we would have to magnify it until the whole atom was the size of a large room, and then the nucleus would be a bare speck which you could just about make out with the eye, but very nearly all the weight of the atom is in that infinitesimal nucleus. What keeps the electrons from simply falling in? This principle: If they were in the nucleus, we would know their position precisely, and the uncertainty principle would then require that they have a very large (but uncertain) momentum, i.e., a very large kinetic energy. With this energy they would break away from the nucleus. They make a compromise: they leave themselves a little room for this uncertainty and then jiggle with a certain amount of minimum motion in accordance with this rule. (Remember that when a crystal is cooled to absolute zero, we said that the atoms do not stop moving, they still jiggle. Why? If they stopped moving, we would know where they were and that they had zero motion, and that is against the uncertainty principle. We cannot know where they are and how fast they are moving, so they must be continually wiggling in there!)
Another most interesting change in the ideas and philosophy of science brought about by quantum mechanics is this: it is not possible to predict exactly  what will happen in any circumstance. For example, it is possible to arrange an atom which is ready to emit light, and we can measure when it has emitted light by picking up a photon particle, which we shall describe shortly. We cannot, however, predict when it is going to emit the light or, with several atoms, which one is going to. You may say that this is because there are some internal “wheels” which we have not looked at closely enough. No, there are no internal wheels; nature, as we understand it today, behaves in such a way that it is fundamentally impossible to make a precise prediction of exactly what will happen in a given experiment. This is a horrible thing; in fact, philosophers have said before that one of the fundamental requisites of science is that whenever you set up the same conditions, the same thing must happen. This is simply not true, it is not a fundamental condition of science. The fact is that the same thing does not happen, that we can find only an average, statistically, as to what happens. Nevertheless, science has not completely collapsed. Philosophers, incidentally, say a great deal about what is absolutely necessary for science, and it is always, so far as one can see, rather naive, and probably wrong. For example, some philosopher or other said it is fundamental to the scientific effort that if an experiment is performed in, say, Stockholm, and then the same experiment is done in, say, Quito, the same results must occur. That is quite false. It is not necessary that science do that; it may be a fact of experience, but it is not necessary. For example, if one of the experiments is to look out at the sky and see the aurora borealis in Stockholm, you do not see it in Quito; that is a different phenomenon. “But,” you say, “that is something that has to do with the outside; can you close yourself up in a box in Stockholm and pull down the shade and get any difference?” Surely. If we take a pendulum on a universal joint, and pull it out and let go, then the pendulum will swing almost in a plane, but not quite. Slowly the plane keeps changing in Stockholm, but not in Quito. The blinds are down, too. The fact that this happened does not bring on the destruction of science. What is the fundamental hypothesis of science, the fundamental philosophy? We stated it in the first chapter: the sole test of the validity of any idea is experiment. If it turns out that most experiments work out the same in Quito as they do in Stockholm, then those “most experiments” will be used to formulate some general law, and those experiments which do not come out the same we will say were a result of the environment near Stockholm. We will invent some way to summarize the results of the experiment, and we do not have to be told ahead of time what this way will look like. If we are told that the same experiment will always produce the same result, that is all very well, but if when we try it, it does not, then it does not. We just have to take what we see, and then formulate all the rest of our ideas in terms of our actual experience

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