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Category: Science, Mathematics, and Statistics

Why is “the right” so hostile to “climate change”?

The American “right” latched onto an “anti-climate change” attitude — and took that to the ridiculous extreme of being proof-of-membership-in-the-group — in large measure as a direct response to the early (and, alas, continuing) attitudes of the American “left” toward the subject.

From the earliest discussions of the potential for climate change and what we might do about it, the left succeeded in tying “climate change” nearly inextricably to “highly coercive and disruptive government mandated emergency command-and-control remedies”.

In that environment, there was simply no way to be both ‘conservative’ and accepted as someone who took climate change seriously. You were either wildly progressive or you were a “denier”. As far as the green left and the media that echoed its talking points was concerned, there was nothing, and no room for anything, in between.

To the extent that the “left” succeeded in transforming “climate change” from a legitimate scientific and policy debate into merely another excuse for getting what it had always wanted anyway and for other reasons — a self-righteous justification for telling us all how to live our lives coupled to yet more coercive authority concentrated in the hands of politicians and government bureaucrats (to be guided, of course, by academic intellectuals) — it did mean that the opposition from the “right” to “climate change” was much more about opposing that coercive policy agenda than it was about the science, itself.

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Expertise and Ego

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then not only exaggerate their certainty, proclaiming that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable and unequivocal (Eat this and you will die!), rather than provisional and subject to chance, but will also proclaim, with equal certainty, that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

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The Care and Feeding of Watchdogs

This has nothing to do with political or social commentary — it is a technical professional article. Feel free to skip it if you aren’t a software nerd.

This is an early technical article I wrote dealing with how to manage the servicing of Watchdog Timers from within a multi-threaded application. I am posting it because it was originally published on paper, the original publisher is long gone, and, as near as I can tell (i.e. it doesn’t come up in a fairly detailed Google search), it was never digitized and made available online. Hence, for all intents and purposes in this digital age, it never actually existed.

I am publishing it here, in this wholly inappropriate forum, because it’s the only online presence I maintain other than a largely unused Facebook account.

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Solar Power, Revisited

Ten years ago, I wrote a post about the cost-ineffectiveness of solar power. Things have changed.

Today, we have a solar power array on our house that has, over the two years of its operation, supplied about 86% of our overall power needs and saved us about 6% on our electricity bill after accounting for the cost of the array, itself.

That glowing summary, however, reflects not actual day-to-day array performance but only an annualized average, made possible by a “net metering” policy that allows us to use the local electric grid as a “battery” and that provides some fairly generous — if hidden – subsidies to help defray the cost of the system.

That glowing summary also hides some fairly strict logistical limits that put an upper bound on how much solar power the grid can support without the net metering policy falling apart.

This is my report on my two years of experience with solar power, along with some musings on its benefits and constraints.

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Some Numbers on Solar Power

8 October 2008

I have a home construction project looming in my future, and I decided that would be a good opportunity to upgrade my environmental footprint (and reduce my energy bills) by adding a solar electrical generation system to the mix. So I did some research on what it would cost me and what I could expect to gain from it. My summary: we aren’t there yet.

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Scientific Faith?

Last November, The New York Times published a piece by Paul Davies in which he took on the attitude of superiority with which secular scientists (his model, apparently, was those like Richard Dawkins, whose recently published book advocating atheism was one of several that sparked a firestorm between believers and non-believers) treated matters of faith. Some of his criticism hit the mark but I thought he went over the top when he claimed that science, itself, is an edifice built on faith — a faith in the scientific method and a presupposition that there are, in fact, physical laws underlying and explaining the way things behave.

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15-year-old “women without husbands”: reporting on statistical analyses

Although I agree wholeheartedly that there is a general ignorance among both reporters and editors (and, by the way, among lawyers, and politicians, and “activists”, and a lot of humanities professors, and even some social scientists, and ecologists, and economists, and physicians) about those subjects, and that much better vetting of such stories is essential, the real problem goes beyond those narrow bounds.

The broader problem is that statistical and mathematical and scientific ignorance is magnified by a fundamental disconnect in language between those who generate such information and those to whom it is reported. Sometimes that disconnect is the result of simple misunderstanding. But often it is intentional – a kind of rhetorical bait-and-switch used to manipulate public opinion.

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Health Care? Ask Cuba

Every once in a while, a study is released comparing health care in the United States to health care in other countries. Despite the fact that we are the wealthiest nation in the world, and that we have one of the most technologically advanced health care systems in the world, there are inevitably some measures by which we lag other developed nations. We have come to expect that: no one denies that our health care system has problems with cost and access; and no one denies that there are certain groups within our society — bounded by poverty and self-destructive lifestyles — for whom our health care system is woefully inadequate. Those are problems we need to address — and solutions upon which so far we cannot agree.

But when by some measure our health care system trails the undeveloped world, that attracts attention.

A recent report ranked the United States behind Cuba in infant mortality. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times used that fact as a springboard for a broad and derisive critique of our market-based system. I agree with much of his diagnosis (and disagree with much of his prescription), but oddities in the way infant mortality is calculated in various countries makes it a dubious and slippery statistic upon which to hang a robust assessment of our current performance.

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Perpetual Motion Redux

CNN online has a regular feature, under the heading Explorers, in which British inventor Trevor Baylis critiques invention ideas suggested by readers. I’ve read the column a few times and Mr. Baylis seems both fair and rigorous in his assessments. He also brings the true inventor’s sense of economics to bear: often his judgments on the viability of an invention are based more on the likelihood anyone would buy it or on the cost to bring it to market than on its technical viability.

One invention he panned on that basis involved a way to generate “free” energy. The would-be inventor knew enough about electricity to know that a magnetic field moving across a wire would induce current; his suggestion was to embed wires under the road and put magnets on the bottom of cars — the magnetized cars moving across the wires would generate electricity, thus tapping the unused potential of all those cars moving back and forth across the country to solve our energy problems. Mr. Baylis pointed out (correctly) that the expense of digging up all those roads and retrofitting all those cars probably made such a scheme far too costly to be practical.

I thought Mr. Baylis did not go far enough in his rejection of this idea. The problem is that this is yet another variation on perpetual motion — and people who think perpetual motion is possible will never believe it is not cost-effective. How can free energy be too expensive to use?  It is yet another symptom of the general scientific illiteracy that plagues the modern world.

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