Posts tagged ‘GMO’

Expert Consensus

Do you disagree with any of these propositions?

  • increases in minimum wages almost always causes job losses among the poor and unskilled
  • GMO's and genetically modified foods have zero proven negative effects on the body or the environment
  • homeopathy is completely useless and has zero medical benefits beyond any potential placebo effects

All of these are super-majority consensus statements in their respective fields.  It's fine if you are skeptical of any of them (and even better if you can justify this skepticism with a reasonably intelligent scientific argument).  But don't tell me that I am somehow inherently wrong to challenge the climate orthodoxy.

Thoughts on Challenging the Climate Orthodoxy

I have over several months been answering questions about my climate positions -- I think for a woman's school project but I honestly can't remember any more.  Anyway, I answered a question for her today and though I did not spend a ton of time on it, I thought I would share.

She asked:

Why do you find it unproductive to argue for something based on how many experts are agreeing to it? Wouldn't it be hubris to dismiss the fact that a number of experts are contradicting you on a subject that is pretty complex and is something that isn't nesessarily understood intuitively? .You state “I find judging science by counting scientists to be unproductive.”.  

Why do you believe it is unproductive to take such a point into serious consideration?

The way I see it. there is this kind of logic:

A math student works on a very complicated math problem from his homework and has all his justifications for his answer. However, it turns out that his math professor has a different answer-- which is saying something important. It would be a slippery slope for the student to posit that his answer is right and the professor's answer is wrong just because the justification he came up with on his own always leads him back to the same answer. (That is, unless he found out an explanation for why his professor got that answer, like say-- maybe the professor never worked out the problem by himself and looked at an answer key which was wrong.)

My off the cuff responses to the student:

  • This is not a simple math problem.  It is a super complex multi-variable chaotic system in which we are trying to attribute changes in one output variable (temperature) to a single input variable out of thousands or millions (CO2).  I think the majority of the hubris (given the state of our knowledge) is on the certainty side, not the doubting side.  I would observe, by the way, that many of the exact same people who use this "you must respect the experts" argument against climate skeptics themselves challenge many expert assertions, e.g. that minimum wages reduce employment or that GMO's are safe, that are supported by at least as many experts in those other fields.  You would be unusual if you personally do not disagree with some proposition that most of the "experts" support.
  • The way folks often describe science when trying to criticize climate skeptics sounds to me a lot more like religion than science.  Saying that there are fundamental assertions that one cannot challenge is a feature of religion, not true science.  Science is about having a theory, making predictions from that theory, and if those predictions consistently turn out to be true, then gaining confidence in the theory.  Many of global warming predictions have been wrong -- they have overestimated temperature increases to date, hurricanes and tornadoes are not getting more frequent, droughts are not getting more frequent, etc (do not confuse the frequency of these events in the news with their actual underlying frequency -- go live with the data at the NOAA to see that all these severe weather trends are dead flat).  But no one goes back and relooks at the model or theories and those that do point out these shortcomings, eg. skeptics, are threatened with censure.  Does not sound like science to me.
  • I am not without relevant expertise.  Though I don't have as deep of climate knowledge as some, I know a lot about modeling chaotic multivariable systems (in finance and economics) and know exactly what the shortcomings of models are and can recognize the patterns of many mistakes in climate that I have seen in other fields of modeling.  Further, the key difference skeptics have with alarmists is the expectation of strong positive feedbacks in the climate accelerating temperatures greatly.  My major and research work in college were in dynamic systems and feedbacks.  Climate scientists are positing that there is more positive feedback in the climate system than exists in any other stable natural system we know about.  That is worth some skepticism if one understands feedbacks.
  • The experts in climate would be a lot more credible if they were more transparent and open to discourse.  Instead, they frequently refuse to release their data (even on government-funded projects) for replication and carefully engineer peer review panels so no one who actually disagrees with them are on it.  It has been years since any climate "expert" has agreed to participate in a public debate.
  • The most important answer is that what the "experts" are saying and what the media and the general public are saying the experts are saying is completely different.  There is a bait and switch going on, where the majority (though maybe not the most vocal) of the experts are very careful and conservative (little c) in their claims, but they are portrayed as being all-in en masse on the most outrageous and spectacular of the claims by activists.  I would refer you to this article, but I will reprint below the key part to your question:

So let's come back to our original question -- what is it exactly that skeptics "deny."  As we have seen, most don't deny the greenhouse gas theory, or that the Earth has warmed some amount over the last several year.  They don't even deny that some of that warming has likely been via man-made CO2.  What they deny is the catastrophe -- they argue that the theory of strong climate positive feedback is flawed, and is greatly exaggerating the amount of warming we will see from man-made CO2.  And, they are simultaneously denying that most or all of past warming is man-made, and arguing instead that the amount that is natural and cyclic is being under-estimated.

So how about the "97% of scientists" who purportedly support global warming?  What proposition do they support?  Let's forget for a minute a variety of concerns about cherry-picking respondents in studies like this  (I am always reminded by such studies of the quote attributed, perhaps apocryphally,  to Pauline Kael that she couldn't understand how Nixon had won because no one she knew voted for him).  Let's look at the actual propositions the 97% agreed to in one such study conducted at the University of Illinois.  Here they are:
1. When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant?
2. Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?
The 97% answered "risen" and "yes" to these two questions.  But depending on how one defines "significant" (is 20% a significant factor?) I could get 97% of a group of science-based skeptics to agree to the same answers.
So this is the real problem at the heart of the climate debate -- the two sides are debating different propositions!  In our chart, proponents of global warming action are vigorously defending the propositions on the left side [see chart in the original], propositions with which serious skeptics generally already agree.   When skeptics raise issues about climate models, natural sources of warming, and climate feedbacks, advocates of global warming action run back to the left side of the chart and respond that the world is warming and greenhouse gas theory is correct.    At best, this is a function of the laziness and scientific illiteracy of the media that allows folks to talk past one another;  at worst, it is a purposeful bait-and-switch to avoid debate on the tough issues.

I could have also said that there were several times in class when I challenged the teacher on a math problem answer and I was right and they were wrong.  My wife-to-be was actually in one of these classes and can testify to the fact.

By the way, I find the last point I made about bait and switch to be surprisingly similar to problems I have arguing net neutrality.  The problem is that the FCC's actions under Obama were NOT net neutrality, they were applying early 1900's telephone regulation which pretty much killed innovation in that industry to the Internet.  Unfortunately, everyone calls those regulations "net neutrality" so if you oppose these dumb counter-productive regulations one is somehow against net neutrality when in fact it is nothing of the sort.


Arnold Kling thinks about human nature:

I believe that humans in large societies have two natural desires that frustrate libertarians.

1. A desire for religion, defined as a set of rituals, norms, and affirmations that are shared by a group and which the group believes it is wrong not to share. Thus, rooting for your local sports team is not a religion, because you realize that it is not wrong for someone else not to root for your local sports team. But if you are against GMO foods, then you believe that those who disagree with you are wrong.

2. A desire for war. I think that it is in human nature to fantasize about battles against tribal enemies. War arises when those fantasies are strong enough to drive behavior.


Though he mentioned tribalism, I think tribalism needs to be pulled up to the top as one of the main two tendencies.  I commented:

I would have recast your second bullet point into a predilection for tribalism rather than a fondness for war. I think it is more all-encompassing. It is tribalism that leads to war, but it also leads to any number of other dysfunctional practices, like protectionism, immigration restrictions, etc.

In addition, tribalism is making it more and more difficult for basic politics to work, particularly for libertarians. As a libertarian, I used to make common cause with the Left on things like gay marriage and the Right on things like regulatory reform. This is increasingly hard to do -- if one does not hold all the group's other beliefs, they don't want to work with you on a narrow issue. Several years ago I was uninvited from co-chairing an effort on gay marriage because others in the group did not like my stances on unrelated issues like education choice.

A few weeks ago there was a bizarre spectacle of a woman who supports the imposition of Sharia law in the US helping to lead the women's march. What the hell? Countries with Sharia law often look like apartheid but for women rather than blacks. Why is is a leading women's advocate supporting such a thing?

This seeming contradiction makes sense, though, in the context of tribalism. The "other" tribe (the Right) opposes sharia law and is skeptical of fundamental Islam so our side must fully embrace it. There is no longer the possibility of any subtlety, like "I don't traffic in gross generalizations about Muslims and welcome them to this country but Sharia law (at least as practiced in some countries, I don't have the religious history chops to know if it is being interpreted correctly) has many things in it that are an abomination to individual rights and Muslims coming to this country are going to have to leave parts of that behind."

This is one of my emerging rules of politics:  if one political group holds a position that does not seem consistent or logical in the context of their other positions, assume they are holding this position because their rival political group has already staked out the opposite side.

Update:  In retrospect, most of what I am calling tribalism he is calling religion, so I think we are saying the same thing with different words.

Hey! Don't Overreact to That Issue, Overreact to My Issue

Nicholas Kristof urges us not to exaggerate or overreact to the risk of terrorism based on a few high-profile but isolated and nearly-impossible-to-control events, particularly since there is no upward trend in terrorism deaths.

He urges us instead to exaggerate and overreact to the risk of catastrophic man-made climate change based on a few high-profile but isolated and nearly-impossible-to-control weather events for which data show there is no actual upward trend (e.g. hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, heat waves, etc).

Everyone today seems to be trying to stampede everyone else into some kind of fear based on overblown risks, whether it be to terrorism or climate change or immigrant-related crime or vaccine-caused autism or, uh, whatever is supposed to be bad that is caused by GMO's.  It is all a quest for power.  They hope that fear will cause you to write them a blank check for exercising power over you.  Don't give it to them.

Inability to Evaluate Risk in A Mature and Reasoned Fashion

A while back I wrote a long post on topics like climate change, vaccinations, and GMO foods where I discussed the systematic problems many in the political-media complex have in evaluating risks in a reasoned manner.

I didn't have any idea who the "Food Babe" was but from this article she sure seems to be yet another example.  If you want to see an absolute classic of food babe "thinking", check out this article on flying.   Seriously, I seldom insist you go read something but it is relatively short and you will find yourself laughing, I guarantee it.

Postscript:  I had someone tell me the other day that I was inconsistent.  I was on the side of science (being pro-vaccination) but against science (being pro-fossil fuel use).   I have heard this or something like it come up in the vaccination debate a number of times, so a few thoughts:

  1. The commenter is assuming their conclusion.  Most people don't actually look at the science, so saying you are for or against science is their way of saying you are right or wrong.
  2. The Luddites are indeed taking a consistent position here, and both "Food babe" and RFK Jr. represent that position -- they ascribe large, unproveable risks to mundane manmade items and totally discount the benefits of these items.  This includes vaccines, fossil fuels, GMO foods, cell phones, etc.
  3. I am actually with the science on global warming, it is just what the science says is not well-portrayed in the media.  The famous 97% of scientists actually agreed with two propositions:  That the world has warmed over the last century and that man has contributed to that warming.  The science is pretty clear on these propositions and I agree with them.  What I disagree with is that temperature sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 concentrations is catastrophic, on the order of 4 or 5C or higher, as many alarmist believe, driven by absurdly high assumptions of positive feedback in the climate system.   But the science is very much in dispute about these feedback assumptions and thus on the amount of warming we should expect in the future -- in fact the estimates in scientific papers and the IPCC keep declining each year heading steadily for my position of 1.5C.  Also, I dispute that things like recent hurricanes and the California drought can be tied to manmade CO2, and in fact the NOAA and many others have denied that these can be linked.  In being skeptical of all these crazy links to global warming (e.g. Obama claims global warming caused his daughter's asthma attack), I am totally with science.  Scientists are not linking these things, talking heads in the media are.

Bill Maher, Living in an Echo Chamber

I refuse to assume (contrary to the modern practice) that someone who disagrees with me is either stupid or ill-intentioned or both [OK, I did call people idiots here -- sorry, I was ranting].  Intelligent people of goodwill can disagree with each other, and the world would be a better place if more people embraced that simple notion.

Anyway, I won't blame lack of intelligence or bad motivations for the following statement from Bill Maher.  He seems to be a smart guy who is honestly motivated by what he says motivates him.  But this statement is just so ignorant and provably false that it must be the result of living in a very powerful echo chamber where no voices other than ones that agree with him are allowed.

HBO’s Bill Maher complained that comparing climate change skepticism to vaccine skepticism was unfair to vaccine skeptics before attacking GMOs on Friday’s “Real Time.”

“The analogy that I see all the time is that if you ask any questions [about vaccines], you are the same thing as a global warming denier. I think this is a very bad analogy, because I don’t think all science is alike. I think climate science is rather straightforward because you’re dealing with the earth, it’s a rock…climate scientists, from the very beginning, have pretty much said the same thing, and their predictions have pretty much come true. It’s atmospherics, and it’s geology, and chemistry. That’s not true of the medical industry. I mean, they’ve had to retract a million things because the human body is infinitely more mysterious” he stated.

Climate science is astoundingly complex with thousands or millions of variables interacting chaotically.  Separating cause and effect is a nightmare, because controlled experiments are impossible.  It is stupendously laughable that he could think this task somehow straightforward, or easier than running a double-blind medical study  (By the way, this is one reason for the retractions in medicine vs. climate -- medical studies are straightforward enough they can be easily replicated... or not, and thus retracted.  Proving cause and effect in climate is so hard that studies may be of low quality, but they are also hard to absolutely disprove).

It is funny of course that he would also say that all of climate scientists predictions have come true.  Pretty much none have come true.  They expected  rapidly rising temperatures and they have in fact risen only modestly, if at all, over the last 20 years or so.  They expected more hurricanes and there have been fewer.  They called for more tornadoes and there have been fewer.  The only reason any have been right at all is that climate scientists have separately forecasts opposite occurrences (e.g. more snow / less snow) so someone has to be right, though this state of affairs hardly argues for the certainty of climate predictions.

By the way, the assumption that Bill Maher is an intelligent person of goodwill who simply disagrees with me on things like climate and vaccines and GMO's is apparently not one he is willing to make himself about his critics.  e.g.:

Weekly Standard Senior Writer John McCormack then pointed out that there are legitimate scientists, such as Dr. Richard Lindzen, who are skeptical of man-made climate change theories, but that there were no serious vaccine-skeptic professors, to which Maher rebutted “the ones who are skeptics [on climate change], usually are paid off by the oil industry.”

I will point out to you that the Left's positions on climate, vaccines, and GMO's have many things in common, as I wrote in a long article on evaluating risks here.