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The2ndWheel Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-11 02:38 PM
Original message
The quants and the poets
http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2011-04-04/quants...

"If, a century ago, the keenest talking heads of the age (who would that have been, I wonder: Chesterton, Shaw, Belloc, Jo Chamberlain?) had battled it out amongst themselves about the future of infrastructure and energy, what would that debate have looked like? If, say, they had all agreed on the importance of rolling out a massive, global plan stretching decades into the future, based on endlessly argued-over scientific facts which themselves disguised a lot of underlying political, cultural and social assumptions about the way the world is what would they have been arguing over? Precisely how many ostlers would be needed by 1950? The importance of a large-scale dung clean-up operation on the streets of major cities? A research and development programme to investigate the plausibility of time machines? Sourcing the funding for an urgent nationwide rollout of dirigible charging stations?

Thoughts like these have been drifting into my head, then drifting out again, for a few weeks now, as I have observed the predictably bitter squabble going on in the green community and, inevitably therefore, in the media about Fukushima and the future of nuclear power. I am, it is safe to say, no scientist (something I have in common with most of those who hold strong opinions on nuclear power, by the looks of it) and I have no real idea what is currently going on in those Japanese reactors (ditto) I dont know, either, whether the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl will turn out to be the high-water mark of the global nuclear industry something which would apparently be a triumph or a catastrophe depending on which pundit youre listening to.

But I do wonder whether it is a high water mark for the greens. For a long time now, the green movement has been in retreat, and that retreat now seems in danger of turning into a rout. From a standing start four decades ago, the greens have seen some of their ideas (mainly the ones about using our resources sustainably) spread widely and sometimes deeply into popular and political culture. They have also, inevitably, seen those ideas watered down. I have covered this subject before and dont intend to do so again here in any detail, but it might be worth reflecting a little bit on the bind the greens are now in."
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phantom power Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-11 02:46 PM
Response to Original message
1. Ice doesn't care if we're quants or poets. Ice just melts.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Apr-04-11 04:03 PM
Response to Original message
2. What a wonderful article! Highly recommended.
We all know by now how big, and unstoppable, the global industrial machine is. We know that the global economy relies on resource consumption like a fish relies on gills, and we know that when this imperative is combined with accelerating technological change, a rising human population, the virus-like spread of consumer values, a mass extinction event, a changing climate and resource scarcity in a number of (admittedly contested) areas, the results do not look pretty. When we add all this up we also know, if we are being honest with ourselves, that we are not going to be able to prevent the crash into the buffers which has already begun from getting very messy indeed.

If we want to move beyond the futility and despair imposed by the cold narrowness of this worldview, where do we look? What is missing here is stories, and an understanding of the importance of stories in getting to the bottom of what is really going on. Because at root, this whole squabble between worldviews is not about numbers at all it is about narratives.

The fight between the pro-nukers and the anti-nukers, for example, is actually quite archetypal. Though both sides pretend to be informed by science and facts both are actually informed primarily by prejudice. Whether you like nuclear power or not is a reflection of the kind of worldview you have: whether you are a confident embracer of the Western model of progress or whether it frightens or concerns you; whether you trust science or tend not to; whether you are cautious or reckless; whether you are progressive or conservative. On issues ranging from GM crops to capitalism, these are the underlying stories that actually inform the green debate. That they are then supported by a clutch of cherry-picked facts easy to come by, after all, in the age of Wikipedia is a footnote to whats really going on.

As we all race to get the latest Japanese Becquerel readings and spat over radiation burns vs. freezing in the dark, it's nice to see someone talking about the narratives that underly the flying numbers.
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-11 03:58 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. Oh dear
not another 'scientists are too science-y, lets blame it on them' screed... from the Dark Mountain loons no less.

<quote>Because at root, this whole squabble between worldviews is not about numbers at all it is about narratives.</quote>

Narratives abound. Yet the story-tellers are still quite scientifically illiterate, often confusing kilowatts with kWh and displaying no real sense of the laws of thermodynamics. And that's just for starters. They contribute to an America that uniquely embodies a media-heavy (narrative-absorbing) culture that thinks of itself as being in love with science... just as long as the science narratives have sexy witches wielding lots of electronic gadgets (the 'science' part); Or continually speading Woo by being very 'narrative' and making a big deal out of individual studies *always* making sure to include comments like "this will change everything!" or some similar noxious admixture.

Who chooses the narratives? Who transmits them the loudest? To what extents do the preferred narratives reflect a class of corrupt manipulators, or a whole culture that has bought into the cult of power? Why are so many scientific careers equivalent to a vow of poverty, and why do the professions and the humanities bestow so much more status? Are the people from Dark Mountain even capable of asking questions like this (or any at all)? And finally: Why would anyone in their right mind insist that people be further shielded from the hard data in science, which leaves FINANCE as the one remaining bastion of numeracy in the eyes of the general public?! What sheer idiocy!

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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-11 04:32 PM
Response to Reply #3
6. Scientists are storytellers too.
Edited on Tue Apr-05-11 04:34 PM by GliderGuider
Their subject matter tends to revolve around the concepts of precision and predictability, but it's no less a story for all that.

Most people are too invested in proving that their story is "Truth" to see that at the core it's just another story.
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CRH Donating Member (671 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-11 08:02 PM
Response to Reply #6
7. Well said,
Science is a wonderful thing, enlightening, growing, inventing, harnessing, transporting and ever evolving to new discovery. The danger, lies in the designation of expertise, in an ever evolving pool of imagination in quest of knowledge. Experts tend to define what is absorbed by others as absolute, when sometimes the experts knowledge is still evolving, and hardly mature. Science can lend itself to traps of duelism, at times when no such borders should restrain. It is a story to which no ending will ever be found, and dogmatism can find no valid forum.

Good article, thanks for the post.
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Apr-06-11 12:39 AM
Response to Reply #6
8. Rarely
And I'd like to remind the people here that most of the "science" staff at the New York Times did not believe in AGW as of a couple years ago.

They tend to be much more concerned with the numbers flowing through Wall Street.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Apr-06-11 07:25 AM
Response to Reply #8
9. I think we have different understandings of the word "story"
To me, science is just as much a part of the cultural narrative as economics, politics, religion, agriculture, the law, business, religion, education or any other organized form of human endeavour. It's not necessary that the activity involve the overt "telling of stories" like you will find in the communications media. Any human domain that embodies an internally consistent set of beliefs about the way the world works, and then expresses those values through its activities is part of our cultural narrative, the story of "who we are" as human beings. The scientific belief that the universe is orderly, understandable and predictable, and runs according to impersonal physical laws, does not set it apart from our cultural narrative, rather it embeds science at its core.

Every time a scientist performs an experiment and publishes the result they are doing two things: the overt action of performing the experiment and publishing, and the meta-action of story-telling. Each communication from a cultural domain like science reinforces its place in the narrative. It's exactly the same as a business issuing an annual report, politicians publishing their platforms, a pope issuing an encyclical or a judge handing down a ruling. Everything exists on two levels: the overt, domain-specific action that furthers the interests of the activity (law, politics, religion, science etc.), and the underlying meta-communication that reinforces the cultural narrative.

The contents of a domain may be "true" within that domain (scientific results are consistent, the law is upheld, businesses make a profit) but the underlying story has nothing to do with truth in that sense. The story is the expression of a set of values that are embodied in the activity, and our cultural narrative is the sum of all such stories that are told within our culture.

Some attributes of our narrative are that the universe is orderly and understandable (science), that people have a responsibility to each other (law), that growth is good (business and economics), that humans are the pinnacle of evolutionary development, that we have the intrinsic right to change the world for our own benefit, and so on.

From this point of view, the inherent "truth" of a particular domain is less important than the beliefs it contributes to our understanding of who we are and how we fit into the universe.

It's not necessary to be an adept within a particular domain to incorporate its story into our personal interpretation of the cultural narrative. Or example, people who are not scientists accept that the universe is orderly and predictable, and those who are not businessmen accept the value of making a profit.

Science may appear to have the most "truth value" to those involved with it, but once we step outside the laboratory, what influences most people about science is not the details but its story.
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Apr-06-11 08:28 PM
Response to Reply #9
10. That assumes a healthy dynamic between cultural domains.
Each communication from a cultural domain like science reinforces its place in the narrative.
There is a concept called "negative information" which has an effect that I think has come to dominate how the media relates scientific endeavor to the rest of us. The 'climategate' debacle is an example of one scientific topic that has suffered almost solely from the way the press conducted themselves-- their climategate coverage caused the public to actually know less about the topic of climate change than they did before. Whether their motivation is largely conscious or subconscious, these cultural insiders are contributing to the erosion (not reinforcement) of science in our society and the outright repression occurring in a growing number of fields is the result.
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kristopher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 07:34 AM
Response to Reply #10
12. +1
Edited on Thu Apr-07-11 07:35 AM by kristopher
What GG said is technically true, but it is itself a narrative he uses for specific effect. Your perceptions are confirmed by your use of what amounts to an "etic' analysis that is employed to place the "emic truths" GG describes into the broader context of a knowledge base concerned with universal human behavior and belief.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 10:05 AM
Response to Reply #12
14. Emic, etic and negative information
Edited on Thu Apr-07-11 10:10 AM by GliderGuider
First, for those unfamiliar with the terms,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emic_and_etic
  • An "emic" account is a description of behavior or a belief in terms meaningful (consciously or unconsciously) to the actor; that is, an emic account comes from a person within the culture. Almost anything from within a culture can provide an emic account.
  • An "etic" account is a description of a behavior or belief by an observer, in terms that can be applied to other cultures; that is, an etic account attempts to be 'culturally neutral'.

Since I wrote the above post from the point of view of a member of the global industrial culture, there are very few regional cultures that would be excluded from my observations. Certainly any culture that has science, law, and business as some of its activities would qualify.

My intention was mainly to clarify the meaning I ascribe to the word story in the context of the term cultural narrative. The specific examples I chose were intended more to make the description accessible to those who are steeped in this culture. If I had drawn examples from another culture for instance hunting, horticulture and knapping flint, the core meanings and operation of story and cultural narrative would have remained intact, though the message might have been less obvious to general readers.

From that perspective I would argue that while my examples are certainly emic, the core message is etic, or culturally neutral. All cultures have narratives, and using examples from ones own to illustrate the point doesnt diminish the universality of the idea.

The simple point I was trying to make is just because our culture assigns a very high truth value to science doesnt mean its not a story in our particular cultural narrative, because all human activities, from experiments in quantum physics to gathering termites for lunch, exist on two levels the activity per se, and the meta-activity of cultural story-telling.

Regarding cprises invocation of negative information: if we are to take this as a formal concept we need a definition of it. In a quick Google I found references to the possibility of quantum information being negative :shrug:, but I also found a psychology paper from 1998 showing that negative information is more motivational for behaviour change than positive information. That sounds more on point, but it still begs the question, Negative or positive relative to what baseline? After all, every piece of information that is negative to one person may be positive to someone else, depending on their value systems.

I agree that there is a lot of cultural manipulation being attempted on both sides of the environmental debate, and what is seen as negative information to one side is usually seen as positive to the other.

The exception to this clash of sub-cultures is when human cultural narratives of any sort bang up against biophysical limits which are inherently value-free. When human behaviour runs into resource depletion, air/land/water pollution, habitat destruction, ocean acidification, the greenhouse effect etc. no amount of story-telling will ultimately keep us on the behavioural course that caused the physical effects.

Our only recourse in that case is to change our narrative. The main meta-task of the environmental movement has to be to create effective and appropriate stories to guide our thinking into new directions in the face of our current circumstances. This will take a lot of story-tellers, and will include the loons from Dark Mountain as well as the Amory Lovins, Lester Browns, James Hansens, Al Gores, Paul Watsons and Patrick Moores of the world as well as each of us reading this.
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kristopher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 11:34 AM
Response to Reply #14
15. Well that's one way of looking at it...
Edited on Thu Apr-07-11 11:49 AM by kristopher
You make the claim "After all, every piece of information that is negative to one person may be positive to someone else, depending on their value systems." That contradicts your assertion that you "wrote the above post from the point of view of a member of the global industrial culture, there are very few regional cultures that would be excluded from my observations. Certainly any culture that has science, law, and business as some of its activities would qualify" in order to describe how you had dictated your analysis from an etic perspective yet couched in emic imagery.
There are differing perspectives and if that is the way you define valid analysis from an etic perspective that is your case to make.
Myself I find that there are universal values. While it is true that these values wax and wane with regard to how central they are to the belief system expressing them, that is a reflection of possibilities afforded by the interplay of all cultural elements adapting to infrastructural forcings and not a justification for claiming relativistic values assign validity to any cockheaded perspective that comes strutting down the walk.

Edited to add: That needs just a bit of flushing out. As I said above, what you describe is technically correct, however you are using that limited description of the interplay of forces to focus the message of moral relativism on the unpopular nuclear narrative in order to enhance its validity. Again, that is your case to make; but I assert that by universal values established in the adaptive response to infrastructural forces the case for and against can be judged invalid etically given the current set of environmental constraints.

This is more how I'd define etic and emic. YMMV


For cultural materialists, sociocultural facts have four aspects.
-Emic (phonemic)- natives viewpoint
-Etic (phonetic)- observers viewpoint
-Behavior events - the bodys motions
-Mental events - thoughts and feelings

Cultural materialists divide data collection and organization into emic and etic analyses.
-Emic analysis depends entirely on an informants explanation. If informants agree on a description or interpretation of data, the data is considered correct.
-Etic analysis does not rely on an informants description alone, but on explication provided by many observers using agreed-on scientific measures. Emic and etic analyses can add mental and behavior analyses. Therefore they can be
-The emics of behavior : Informants description of a natives behavior.
-The emics of thought : Informants description of a natives thought.
-The etics of behavior : Observers explication of a natives behavior.
-The etics of thought : Observers explication of a natives thought.

Cultural materialism rejects the research strategy restricted to the emics of thought only, which is the idealists favorite. Instead, cultural materialists think both emic and etic analyses should go together.


http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/theory_pages/Materialis...
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 12:15 PM
Response to Reply #15
16. Questions about analysis and values
Is it possible to produce an etic analysis of ones own culture, using only observers that are also members of it? If so, thats the position I aspire to in this case. If not, then the whole question seems moot, and we should accept that all observations of ones own culture are inevitably emic, with no possibility of cultural neutrality.

Can you give me an example of a universal value? I wonder if you differentiate universal values from absolute values? To give you an idea, I define absolute values as those having validity regardless of place, time or species, and universal values as those having validity to all humans regardless of place or time. I dont think any universal values exist, and I have yet to identify a universal value beyond Dont harm a member of your own family or tribe unless they have it coming.
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kristopher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 12:20 PM
Response to Reply #16
17. I'm really not interested in this discussion with you.
Thanks anyway.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 12:25 PM
Response to Reply #17
18. No problem.
Anyone else who might be interested is welcome to throw in their two cents.

TTYL.
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 02:27 PM
Response to Reply #16
19. Every culture that has lasted more than ten generations
has incorporated some universal values, although their emphasis varies within their respective oral and written traditions.

Values like "live and let live", having a system that defines crimes and punishments, educating the young, minimum levels of sustenance and shelter, even tool-making, language and math I think are all examples of values that inevitably make their way into culture overtly or otherwise.

IOW, I don't see how members of the same intelligent species could avoid sharing certain values for very long due to the sheer physical impossibility. And without these tendencies toward common values we would not have been able to learn different languages. At least that is my view as a secular humanist.

One purported tenet of secular humanism is that "ethics are situational". Yet that isn't a call for moral relativism, but more of a recognition that we have to respond to our environment for the sake of universal values. A modern western family and a prehistoric tribe would normally have very different ways of educating their adolescents... but if modern folk were preparing a child to live in primitive conditions, they would tend to settle on a 'curriculum' with priorities that are essentially the same as those of the prehistoric folk.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 03:52 PM
Response to Reply #19
20. Thanks. "Universal" can mean different things to different people.
I was probably interpreting it too broadly. So to you, "universal" seem to mean something like "broadly shared by most of the people within a given culture at a given time, in the circumstances of that time. Would that be a fair statement? if so, I agree.

It's interesting to think of our modern globalized industrial civilization as a single culture. It does have some universal values, of course. Some that come to mind include not causing unnecessary harm to other people, the desirability of economic growth, the desirability of a scientific/technological interface with the world, the desirability of power hierarchies, and that transgressions of norms should be punished under the auspices of a legal system. It's in support of those values that I think we see the strongest cultural stories, which I guess are essentially normative.

"Universal" obviously doesn't mean that everyone in the culture holds those values, just that they are widely enough accepted to form the culture's "operating system" - the default view if you will. In times of transition, as circumstances begin to change, more and more people will begin to diverge from the default values, and start telling stories that promote new values that seem to align better with the new situation.

Finally, I'd say yes to your comment about situational ethics and moral relativism. That's a point that is very hard for a lot of people to get - especially those who have a deep exposure to monotheistic religions.
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cprise Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 06:19 PM
Response to Reply #20
21. I would say they are
broadly shared by most people across cultures and throughout pre-/history. The core human values tend to stay the same even if the situational ethics that support those values have to change according to new conditions. "Reverence for life" would be shared across cultures both nomadic and agricultural, but the specific customs that nomads use to revere life would be quite different than the customs farmers use for the same purpose because each type of society gains sustenance differently.

With that in mind, a number of (perhaps most) great cultures throughout time have each produced at least a semi-formal humanistic tradition within them, characterized by a focus on pretty much the same universal values.

There are also a large number of other values and customs that aren't as crucial, ranging from "very helpful" to "neutral" to "detrimental", that appear more spuriously in human societies.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 07:26 PM
Response to Reply #21
22. It depends...
We like to think there are inviolable human values - they are what make us civilized, after all. But hold the idea of "reverence for life" in your heart, then think about Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Nazi Germany. Hell, think about pre-Emancipation America. I claim that we have always needed customs and rituals to remind us of that particular value because it slips away from us so easily. Rather than a quasi-humanistic tradition that supported such values, more often than not it was religious customs that underpinned them, with the unspoken proviso that those at the tip of the power hierarchy could tell you what life to revere.

If there is a single overarching universal value that has been consistent across the ages, it is "Might makes right." Not a civilizing thought, for sure, but it has underpinned virtually every civilization since the hunter-gatherers, and possibly even some H-G societies. Have you found a way to counteract that Prime Directive in your own life? I think I have, but it requires withdrawing from many of the activities we take for granted, and giving away the idea of "winning" entirely. Surrender (in its meaning of "become one with" rather than "capitulate") is the name of that game, and most people really don't know how to go there, or even why they might want to.
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kristopher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 07:51 PM
Response to Reply #22
23. Might makes right is not an "overarching universal value that has been consistent across the ages"
The vast bulk of human existence has developed in an environment of egalitarianism (>200,000 yrs vs <10,000) as the dynamics behind hunter-gatherer group relationships are antithetical to "might makes right".

Continue with your sophist performance, but please, stick to the facts.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 08:48 PM
Response to Reply #23
24. I thought you really weren't interested?
In any event, "across the ages" is exact, since my reference was to the Three Ages of History, especially the Bronze and Iron ages, though the Copper age and the Middle Ages could be included as well as the Modern Age (or Era).

However I also say "it has underpinned virtually every civilization since the hunter-gatherers, and possibly even some H-G societies" which even includes the Stone Age (at least the Upper Paleolithic), and I believe this phrase carries explicit accuracy you're really interested in.
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kristopher Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 09:00 PM
Response to Reply #24
25. That is the sophistry I'm not interested in.
Your intent was to convey the idea that "might makes right" is the most fundamental aspect of human belief systems. That is false. Trying to split hairs using tangential wording when your explicit wording was clear is typical of the crap you pull and defines why I'm not interested in encouraging your duplicitous games.
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 11:03 PM
Response to Reply #25
26. I have no clue if it's "the must fundamental aspect of human belief systems" or not
Edited on Thu Apr-07-11 11:16 PM by GliderGuider
"Might makes right" is the belief I settled on because it is the most powerful organizing principle I could detect across civilizations stretching back to the dawn of recorded history and somewhat before. There may be others, but until someone suggests another candidate I'll stick with that one.

I wish it weren't so, because I'm a pacifist non-dualist, and have evidence in my own life of the power of love. I've seen how much difference that shift made in my own life, as I moved away from attachment and anger towards surrender and serenity, and I can imagine what a civilization composed of people who feel this way might be like. This is why I have abandoned the thoughts of "winning" the environmental jousting match. Instead I'm concentrating on spreading the idea that personal inner growth is the surest bet out there, no matter what problems humanity-as-a-whole faces in the future. In the environmental arena I'm trying to move from judgement to observation, accepting whatever I find as evidence of what-is, trying to be being curious without agenda. Of course I don't always succeed, but that's my goal. As Browning said, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

I know you think I'm trying to be slick and wriggly. All I can say is that you are seeing me through filters of your own devising. I'm actually trying to be as honest and forthright as I can, along with having a bit of fun at the same time. You may not like what you see, but I can't help that. In this case what you see is what you see.

Oh, I think I just found another universal cultural principle that may go back even farther than the "might makes right" business. It's this: "Don't eat your relatives."
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XemaSab Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 11:22 PM
Response to Reply #26
27. Don't KILL your relatives and eat them
:P
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Apr-08-11 06:43 AM
Response to Reply #27
28. Ha! A subtle but significant clarification!
:rofl: :hi:
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bananas Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-11 04:04 PM
Response to Original message
4.  What a perfect illustration of quants at work
Dividing the world into two kinds of people is exactly what a quant would do!
"There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't" Robert Benchley
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GliderGuider Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Tue Apr-05-11 04:29 PM
Response to Reply #4
5. No, actually poets do it as well.
yin yang state of mind
dark needs light and light needs dark
opposites attract.
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Nederland Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 06:37 AM
Response to Reply #4
11. How many kinds of people are there?
I've always said there are 10 kinds of people. Those who understand binary and those who don't.

:)
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Dead_Parrot Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Apr-08-11 06:47 AM
Response to Reply #11
29. Dammit...
I saw your post title and that's exactly what I thought of.

Sigh. Too late...

:D
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Nederland Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Apr-07-11 07:54 AM
Response to Original message
13. Good Article
The greens are in a corner. If you believe that climate change will wreck the Earth and that the only way to prevent that from happening is to reduce emissions in a fantastically short time period, then you are in a very perilous place.

Although I doubt very much that the author would agree with my take on this observation, the underlying sentiment is the same: greens are in very perilous place, and climate change is the cause. Over the last 20 years greens have made some extremely bold and specific claims regarding climate change. For the first ten years of those twenty, they appeared to be correct. Temperatures were skyrocketing and it seemed that even the doomsday predictions of Jim Hansen were too optimistic. Then the next ten years rolled by, and suddenly the things didn't look so grim. Average temperatures remained pretty much flat for almost 12 years, and observed temperatures came in well below model predictions.

In many ways the situation is reminiscent of the 1970's when people like Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome had made some very specific and dire predictions regarding humanities future. "The battle to feed humanity is over" declared the opening sentence of Ehrlich's The Population Bomb, and virtually every intelligent person agreed. After all, the data was clear, the argument lock tight: you can't continue to have logarithmic population growth while agricultural production only increases at an arithmetic rate. We were doomed, and there was nothing we could do about it.

Except we weren't.

Every single one of the specific predictions made in the The Population Bomb failed to come true. The wild predictions--that 200,000 people would die from "smog disasters" in New York and Los Angeles in 1973, that U.S. life expectancy would drop to 42 years by 1980 because of pesticide-induced cancers, that the U.S. population would decline to 22.6 million by 1999, that England would cease to exist by 2000--all of these look absolutely embarrassing given today's reality. So what went wrong? Well, the numbers went wrong. Population growth rates started to fall and agricultural production rates started to soar. Even to this day there are Malthusian apologists that will try to explain away what happened, but the simple fact is the numbers did not come in the way the doom sayers predicted.

And so when the author of this piece says "the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers", I believe he may be correct in a way he does not allude to in the article. You can't claim that global temperatures will rise by 5 or 6 degrees over the next 100 years and then have virtually no rise at all for the last 12 years without people starting to doubt you. And if another 10 years go by without much rise in global temperatures, the debate is going to be over among honest people. Yes, there will undoubtedly be those that stick their heads in the sand and say "just you wait, temperatures are going to start soaring any day now", just as there are still Ehrlich supporters that claim we are all going to start starving any day now. However, these people will be marginalized and the political concerns of the majority will have moved on.

Is this the fate of the today's AGW doomers? Will the numbers go wrong for Hansen, just as the numbers went wrong for Ehrlich? Let me be very clear and say that I do not know. My gut tells me that they might, if for no other reason than the fact the environmentalists have always had a love affair with each and every doomsday theory that comes along. I believe that this pessimism clouds the judgement of many scientists, and results in consistently tweaking predictions towards their most dour. That being said, the real risk here is that if greens are proven wrong about this issue, no one will ever take them seriously again. Unlike the population growth issue of 40 years ago, environmentalists have put virtually all their eggs in the global warming basket. It is by far the single most consuming issue for almost every environmental organization in existence today. This time if the numbers go wrong, it will be hard to recover.

For the sake of all the other worthy environmentalist concerns, I pray that they don't.

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