29 October 2012

Mitt: Disaster Waiting to Happen

General Election Mitt would like you to forget Primary Mitt, who during a debate just after the Joplin tornado advocated closing FEMA in favor of state disaster relief. That's stupid enough. (Every state should maintain duplicate fleets of temporary housing and mobile hospitals, because a disaster could hit any one of them!) But what chaps my fanny is the Randian nonsense herein (emphasis mine), and I'm including his fatuous crap about passing on debt just to ensure that no one accuses me of taking this out of context:

"Absolutely," he said. "Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?"

"Including disaster relief, though?" debate moderator John King asked Romney.
"We cannot -- we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids," Romney replied. "It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it's paid off. It makes no sense at all."

Did you get that? He thinks a good way to trim the deficit is private-sector disaster relief. So people with a bundle of dough can buy rescue when hurricanes hit, but for the feckless lazy crowd that doesn't have tens of thousands in cash ready to hand -- sheesh, just die already!

Private insurance? Don't even start. Two reasons: Profit will siphon far more out of the risk pool than "government inefficiency" ever will (see "VA Hospitals"). The flip side of the same coin: Insurers' duty to shareholders compels them to evade claims in any way possible. If their lawyers can find an escape from funding a rescue mission for your family, then you're going to be treading water for a long, long time. In contrast, the Coast Guard, firefighters, EMTs, and SAR teams see rescue as their mission, and put their lives on the line because rescue, not profit, is what they do.

Free-market fundamentalists make me just as sick as the kind who put bombs on airplanes, or the ones who murder doctors. Markets are a fine tool -- for some things. But they are the distilled essence of selfishness, and those who worship them unconditionally are consigning people to die to satisfy their fetish.

Think I'm being too harsh? Consider the millions fossil-fuel profiteers have pumped into the so-far-successful effort to delay climate-change action. Those people share culpability for everyone who dies during this storm, and the ones to come. To wail that relief must be cut, for the suffering they helped cause, in order that their obscene piles of money grow a little bit faster -- that is evil in its essence.

23 October 2012

Reality's Liberal Bias

Liberals are wont to quote Stephen Colbert: "Reality has a well-known liberal bias". And they're smug about it too, implying that those who disagree with them are not just ignorant, but wantonly so. Why should that be?

"They're idiots" is an easy conclusion to jump to whenever stubborn disagreement manifests itself. It allows one to "flip the bozo bit", consigning the opposition to a stereotyped dustbin of stupid unwillingness to see what is obvious. And yet it's clearly not the case. If you're liberal, I'd lay dollars to doughnuts that you can effortlessly invoke baffling examples of friends or public figures who are clearly intelligent, not obviously corrupt, yet persistent in denying what seems transcendentally factual.

Evolution. Climate change. The failure of austerity as an economic booster rocket. To the "academic elite", and especially to those in the sciences, these matters are hardly in factual dispute -- they were settled long ago. And yet a significant proportion of the country sees "liberal bias" in those conclusions, refusing to accept them as matters of fact. What's going on here?

I submit that what's happening is a fundamental difference in orientation, a disparity in worldviews so basic that it's hardly visible. For example, to the evolution denialist -- let's not mince words here, the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelming -- the "liberal" academic consensus is weighed against the plain Word of God, and found wanting. Where do a bunch of scientists get off, flattering themselves that they know more than the Creator of the universe? In other words, of the two authorities, they'll pick God, thanks very much.

Climate change is a bit murkier, instructively so. After all, for every ten scientists proclaiming that anthropogenic carbon emissions are a critical danger, there's one* who has data purporting to show the opposite. Whose authority should we trust?

And of course in economics it's harder still. Important, credentialed figures -- the sort Paul Krugman calls Very Serious People -- continue to insist that in the depths of a recession, with unemployment reaching riots-in-the-streets levels in many countries, the crucial thing to do is to reduce the deficit! No matter that we now have actual experimental evidence that it doesn't work, that austerity measures cripple revenue and thus don't even reduce the deficit, to say nothing of the human suffering they cause. Very Serious People say that investor confidence is at stake, and we must believe them!

The correlation between educational attainment and "liberal" views is by no means 100%, but it's quite strong. In the sciences, it's even stronger. And this gives us a clue. People not immersed in the sciences tend to mistake what it's about, and I believe that leads them to fundamental errors on these sorts of issues. It's not ignorance, it's not stupidity, it's not stubbornness, but a natural consequence of worldview.

Ask laypeople about the nature of science, and you'll get some interesting responses. I've done so, and it's pretty instructive. Many think that science is chiefly a body of facts about the world, that one proceeds by memorizing those facts, and that furthermore those facts are frequently later found to be mistaken, so the whole thing boils down to a question of whom you choose to believe, that what your gut tells you will, in the end, turn out to be right.

That's the crux of the problem. Science is, more than anything else, a habit of skepticism. As Richard Feynman said, "The first principle is not to fool yourself, and you're the easiest person to fool". One's preconceptions color one's judgement of the data in subtle and confounding ways, so that scientists have learned, literally over centuries, that the data, and removing biases from their collection, are the whole game. Not who collected them, or how prestigious their position, but the actual observations

Since no person can possibly reconstruct the entire edifice personally, trust is still required, of course, and this is what the practice and customs of science attempt to guarantee. I haven't personally repeated the observations of transitional-form fossils myself, but given that the results have been repeated, and the process examined by skeptical scientists before me, I'm willing to accept that evolution, in fact, has occurred.

Note that skepticism is not, in itself, an absolute value either. After a point, when experiments have been repeated, observations confirmed, conclusions debated, the reasonable scientist has to accept that we're done -- the conclusion is slotted into the structure of scientific fact. New data might dispute it (viz. Einstein on Newtonian physics), but a crucial distinction missed by those who misunderstand science is that one doesn't keep banging on, desperately refusing to accept facts that refute a treasured idea. Those people are not called scientists, they're called cranks.

Conservatives tend to lambaste liberals for their wishy-washy lack of absolute principle. And to some extent they're right -- in the sciences, at least, it doesn't matter how sacred a precept is, if the data show it to be erroneous, then it must be abandoned. So science-minded liberals (and remember, the two are pretty strongly correlated) perforce are parsimonious on the number of absolutes they're willing to adopt. Which makes them suspicious of authority, while conservatives tend to see authority as the standard of judgement.

This, I believe, is what drives intelligent people to adopt world models at odds with scientific fact. Akin to moral relativism, "factual relativism" leads them to believe that there are, in fact, two (or more) equally consistent and defensible worldviews to choose from, and it all comes down to whom you choose to believe. The conservatives choose the people most in tune with their values; the assertions they make are just as good as the other guys', after all.

Flipping the bozo bit isn't going to help -- it merely relegates my fellow citizen to an "other" status, and pretty well precludes any kind of dialog or constructive work. There are fundamental differences, some of which aren't amenable to compromise, or at least not in the "find the middle between two extremes" sense of the word. But we do not progress by poisoning the well of political discourse. These are our fellow Americans, and they deserve our respect, even if some of their ideas are demonstrably false.

Highlight the sources of disagreement, where you can, instead of attacking the values of the person you're facing. Frame the issue in terms they can come to grips with.

Don't give up. We might arrive there by an unnecessarily costly, frustratingly indirect path. But if you have the facts on your side, reality will eventually win out.


*Well, almost one, anyway. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Climate_science_opinion2.png. And the role of fossil-fuel funding for these researchers is not to be ignored, either. Or forgiven; they seem to have succeeded in paralyzing action when it would have made a difference, so having purchased their profitability at the cost of untold lives and ecosystem wreckage. Let's not forget to give them their reward when the all-but-inevitable happens.