The perils of passion

In this age of intense cultural polarization, one of the topics invoking the greatest amount of hot air is climate change. I’ll be up front in that I’ve always thought the idea of “global warming” was a farce but that we are likely to instead see climatic shifts as a result of our industrialization. The stakes are high and those who prophesy the coming change can resort to scare tactics that seem necessary in our over-informed, busy world.

The latest ‘More or Less: Behind the Stats’ features a story about what happens when such predictions fall flat. Norman Myers created a map in the mid-90s that showed regions of the world that would see a mass exodus as a result of climate change. His method of prediction was quite simple: he predicted areas hardest hit and then simply used their total census data. He then attached to it the year 2010.

On the face of it, this “study” isn’t more than a worse-case, alarming scenario that I would hope is presented to policy makers, among other more-realistic options. What made the map and prediction come to light was a blogger’s critique of it…and its hosting on the UN Environment Programme’s website and inclusion in IPCC literature. It turns out the very regions expecting emigration have seen steady increases in population.

After the critique, the UNEP quickly removed the map, but Dr Myers isn’t helping his case by refusing to retreat from his number or timeline, explaining that it’s difficult to count local migration that did not necessarily cross borders. And of course with his anecdotal reporting from refugee camps that his critics just weren’t passionate enough to visit as often.

The environmental movement is reaching the end of its adolescence, and for the first time a number of predictions from serious, respected figures can be compared to the actual outcomes. The fact that most stories on climate change simply quote the latest predictions without offering a perspective on what those experts previously forecast is disappointing. It’s like getting investment advice from the same guy who got burned in the tech bubble.

Failed predictions don’t necessarily mean the current batch are wrong, researchers have presumably spent the intervening time perfecting their models, collecting more thorough data, and exploring new ideas. Instead, journalist should take the time to cull extreme exaggerators of their pet experts. Michael Lewis does a superb job of providing sobering economic predictions in The Big Short by profiling the investors that made unholy amounts of wealth off of predicting the financial crisis, but then there’s no disputing whether that crisis occurred.

Media type: Podcast
From: BBC’s More or Less: Behind the Stats
Title: “More or Less looks at child poverty, climate refugees and Sir Henry Cooper’s left hook”
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Rambunctious youth never listen

I’ve been shopping around a number of podcasts lately due to an uptick in labwork.  Some, like Skeptics Guide to the Universe, help keep my scientific processes in gear while others, like Great Speeches in History, tap into a deeper, visceral interest.  During today’s session I was privileged to hear both Malcolm X appeal for black nationalism and George Washington’s farewell address.

For the record, I’m not black, nor was I raised in an environment were race was an uncomfortable, confrontational issue.  So what was surprising about today wasn’t the outright revolution Malcolm X was striving for, nor the possible ethnic conflict that could’ve resulted, possibly mirroring some of the unrest we see in Sri Lanka, Iraq, or Xinjiang.  Instead, what I found more disrupting was the message that Washington gave as he declined running for a third term as our nation’s first executive.

I confess to long being an admirer of GW.  First hooked in high school, I’ve since read James Flexner’s superb one-volume biography, McCullough’s chronicle’s of that pivotal year 1776, and even the somewhat dull analysis of the constitutional convention: The Summer of 1787.  And while I was as familiar as any student of politics with the immortal warnings against political parties and “entangling alliances” I found myself pausing in my work to listen and contemplate on the advice from an astute actor in both realpolitik and high theory.

Barely over half an hour, the president touches on so many timeless issues: party politics, war, national spending, even the nature of taxes.  By far, his most powerful piece is on parties.  Washington saw the inevitable harm from political parties on accomplishing the real goals of any nation.  That bickering would so obsess the leaders, that national priorities would place second to one-upsmanship.  That region would be turned against region; false, exaggerated stereotypes would isolate us within our own country.  Finally, by luck one party would gain the upper hand and that domination “sharpened by the spirit of revenge” would lead to a new despotism resulting in  “miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”  Indeed, history is full of men who’ve played party politics for personal gain: Caesar and Pompey played their factions off each other so well it led to first one and then the other being declared Dictator, Napoleon rode the fighting factions of the revolution.  We complain of bureaucratic and rusted government in Washington and Madison, where petty political tricks and maneuvering have been used more to capture headlines and the next election; as such more power has been ceded to the executive branch in an unheralded number of cabinet-level departments.  In light of the current recession, many in the press have drawn attention to China’s ability to get things done quickly, the underlying tone suggesting our pesky, self-erected impediments could be swept away if we were willing.

Washington continues with prudent talk on government finances.  Regarding public credit he admonishes “use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace .”  But he admits timely spending to prevent danger would ultimately be far cheaper than repelling such danger.  But debt was too be immediately repaid so that we would be “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”

It is interesting that in terms of finance, he seems to think only in terms of spending on the military.  There’s nary a mention of a bureaucracy to pay, entitlements to hand out, infrastructure to ‘invest’ in.  And for such a dominated budget, despite being a soldier Washington seems to have fervently detested a standing army, thinking if it existed it would be misused.

Instead of armed conflict, we are told to maintain friendships with all nations, make no new alliances, but not to besmirch our name by removing ourselves from those that presently exist.  Commerce would be our strongest foreign policy move.  It is a message that modern-day globalization supporters would trip over themselves to agree with.

Being Washington, the speech is peppered with remarks praising his audience and peers for so well-designing a government, and that he is but an inept player called to serve his country.  His humility rings genuine and in the end we are left with words which at least touch us.  But it is fitting that much like so many adolescents, we have listened but not heard to what our greatest Founding Father considered his greatest advice.


Media type: Podcast
From: Greatest Speeches in History
Title: Washington’s Farewell Address
Hear it at:
(scroll down to nearly the bottom)
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