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Science and Motivated Skepticism

A fun new headline which might make a splash in the blogosphere in the near future:

World misled over Himalayan glacier meltdown

A WARNING that climate change will melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 is likely to be retracted after a series of scientific blunders by the United Nations body that issued it.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world's glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC's 2007 report.

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was "speculation" and was not supported by any formal research. If confirmed it would be one of the most serious failures yet seen in climate research. The IPCC was set up precisely to ensure that world leaders had the best possible scientific advice on climate change.

Whoops.

Pointing out failures in environmental science tends to invite all sorts of accusations upon the speaker. Among baser epithets, you'll face charges of denialism, or at least a kind of crypto-denialism and various sorts of motivated skepticism. The ubiquity of the term "denialism", being not-so-subtly meant to evoke the rawer emotions associated with Holocaust denialism, would do George Lakoff proud. Skeptics have fought back by drawing parallels between environmentalism and a sort of secular fundamentalism; the environmentalists, tending to be fond of the term "market fundamentalism" itself, cannot dismiss this metaphor at the outset and instead get bogged down into debates over whether environmentalism is really like religion - at which point they've already lost.

I'm not going to press this metaphor seriously, but if environmentalism is to be likened to a religion, then the vaguely-defined "scientific community" would undoubtedly be its clergy. Its higher-ranking members, through their communes with tree rings and ice sheets, speak ex cathedra from Nature Herself - or something like that. Of course, this authority only extends to the community of environmental scientists. As an economist, this deference to Science doesn't cover my discipline. I realize that the credibility of economists is at something of a nadir at the moment, but let's not pretend that it was ever that high to begin with among Science-touting left-of-center individuals, even despite the existence of a strong professional consensus on many issues that are of great contention among the general population. As Bryan Caplan (whose book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, is required reading on motivated political cognition) might observe, economics is relatively unique in its being respected as a science without its actual practitioners being given the usual intellectual deference which comes with the mantle of expertise.

I'll admit that this is somewhat embittering - that not believing in AGW can make you a pariah who is (gasp!) "anti-science", but believing that rent control is an awesome idea that only hurts rich people - often the "Other", as it were - is perfectly respectable, or at least understandable if you've spent your life learning about more important things than what happens when prices can't rise to clear a market. When you tell someone that the professional consensus is against their personal view, you're usually told either that economics is a "right-wing (or left-wing) discipline", or that economists rely on a poor model of human behavior which renders their entire discipline useless at best and dangerous at worst - didn't you know that the financial crisis discredited free markets?

But a little skepticism really isn't a bad thing. It's somewhat reassuring that the people who trumpet Science in the context of the environmental debate are such keen skeptics of the economic discipline - it shows, at least, that they do have an understanding of the general process through which the scientific investigations can be derailed. Stories like the one linked above and Climategate reveal many of the unsavory processes that are actually at work in generating consensus - scientists misrepresenting/losing/hiding data which might have been selectively chosen and shoddy, trying to silence dissent for political or financial reasons, "common wisdom" being based on narratives hopelessly distorted in a telephone game of motivated communication. This is the norm of how politicized science proceeds when the black box is cracked open, and it's understandable that environmentalists act far dumber than they actually are in trumping up the fidelity of consensus.

Trying to determine what the ex ante "optimal level of deference" to be afforded to a given expert or set of experts is an incredibly difficult problem. But like most things in life, it's probably somewhere between "none" and "infinity" - and not embracing the latter extreme does not make you "anti-science." These kinds of labels might make for effective politicking, but those who employ them would make themselves rather ironic champions of reason and science.


Spiteful Competition?

In her latest reply to Nye and Wilkinson at this month's Cato Unbound dialogue on economic inequality, Elizabeth Anderson uses the phrase "spiteful competition" no less than four times. Does anyone have any idea what exactly this is supposed to mean? I could offer some guesses, but let's see what she apparently believes about this concept:

- Conspicuous consumption is a form of spiteful competition
- Not all forms of status competition can be classified as spiteful competition

I'm at something of a loss here. Pure status competition in general is usually seen as a zero or negative-sum activity, and if displacing someone else on the social ladder isn't spiteful, what is? Does it have to be accompanied by an upturned nose and catty banter in order to qualify? This strikes me as an important source of confusion in Anderson's overall argument: What delineates "good" status competition from "bad" status competition? What forms of inequalities give rise to good versus bad forms of status competition?

It's unclear whether Anderson actually believes that reducing income inequality would actually reduce status competition instead of just causing it to be expressed along some other dimensions of identity. Observe the trendy prevelence of food and environmental snobbery among certain parts of the American population - can anyone honestly say that these causes have not become broad cultural movements used in order to create "spiteful" hierarchies of social enlightenment? Anderson appeals to the lack of conspicuous consumption in Scandanavian countries, but does she believe that the fact that these countries have much greater status stratification by job title is completely coincidental? Or is this okay because, for whatever reasons, this sort of stratification isn't done "spitefully"?

I can understand the concerns about status competition, really. And I agree that positive-sum outcomes could often be attained if individuals had mechanisms to constrain themselves from engaging in it. But at the same time it strikes me as incredibly naive to believe that eliminating status competition along one dimension of social reality by fiat wouldn't simply result in greater status competition along other closely-associated dimensions. Basic economic logic argues that banning a good will lead to greater demand for its close substitutes at the margin, and status can often be modeled as a good which obeys these sorts of rules. If income inequality is diminished, why would we not expect for people to just shift their energies into activities that generate status rents but don't actually increase income? Would we expect the subsequent investments in status goods to be less wasteful than investments in Gucci bags and toy dogs? Would these benefits outweigh the costs produced by then the efficiency losses which heavily-progressive taxation would generate? These are the questions which Anderson should be trying to address.


Virtual Worlds and the DMCA

Well, it seems that the metaverse is all a-twitter about how Linden Labs, the coding authority behind Second Life, is being sued under the DMCA... but I've heard nary a peep of this case in the usual cyberlibertarian circles yet. I guess the underlying reason may be that this seems like a pretty typical application of that law once one looks past the novelty of the "virtual worlds" element to it: Service providers have to respond to takedown notices by IP holders, and not doing so can get you sued. Voila.

An analysis of the case's legal merits can be found on the Second Life Herald, but I find it disappointingly superficial. Firstly, I highly doubt that a reading of the ToS which implies that individuals completely surrender their copyright protections in Second Life when they upload content would be enforceable. Secondly, even if this were the case, one would have to interpret the infringement by third parties as having been licensed by Linden Labs, which seems like quite a stretch. Third, it wouldn't address the issue of trademark infringement, which is an important part of the lawsuit overall.

I imagine that this dispute will be resolved by Linden Labs agreeing to take a more active role in dealing with knockoff goods in Second Life. The main question is how costly this will end up being, and how those costs will be passed along to Second Life's users. One could actually imagine a trademark registry being relatively simple to add to the client... for example, if a user trademarks a term, it'll appear in a special font when they use it or make an object that uses it, and the font will indicate authenticity. Registration fees could cover the review process and maybe even a little extra. I won't claim that this issue is a no-brainer to resolve (I'd be very surprised if this ideal hasn't been discussed before), but I doubt that Linden Labs has any real interest in allowing for massive trademark infringement to run rampant. Maybe my simple solution wouldn't satisfy trademark-holders, but the nice thing about being able to implement rules and institutions at the code layer is that they can be very costly to circumvent.

As a tangential note, I'm consistently amazed at how issues of virtual world economics will induce even tech-savvy individuals to express disbelief in the notion that virtual goods can have real monetary value to people. It's a stark reminder that subjective value theory really, really runs contrary to the intuitions of most people.


Be careful what you endogenize...

I'll admit upfront to only having a passing and most likely superficial familiarity with the issues explored by the transhumanist community. But as I was (metaphorically) thumbing through the latest issue of H+ magazine, I was struck by how... constrained many of the articles are. Futurology is a notably (and often comically) imprecise "science", and it's easy to be blind to the ways which technological developments will fundamentally transform the issues we face - which tends to lead to comparably absurd extrapolations of current trends into the indefinite future. Some believes that the shift from extensive (Malthusian) to intensive economic growth that began in roughly the 19th century is a temporary blessing which will be reversed by the advent of cheaply-replicable silicon brains.

This might strike one as intuitively undesirable, but not an absurd possibility if brain emulation or general artificial intelligence becomes sufficiently advanced to seriously blur the general distinction between labor and capital. But what strikes me as odd about many of the writers from H+ - and again, maybe this isn't representative of transhumanists in general - is what they want to keep constant in their arguments. Oftentimes there's a clear hedonist tendency to act as if technology will simply make it easier for us to achieve our desires, rather than actually shaping and redefining our desires. This isn't merely to say that the cultural changes which accompany technological growth will change the particulars of what we want, but that the broad nature of our appetites will become an endogenous variable that can be shaped by technology. Who says we'll seek pleasure, as it's currently understood, let alone particular avenues to pleasure such as sex, or "fun", or a satisfaction of our current set of appetites? It seems likely that there would be selection pressures which would favor beings with motivations geared towards self-replication - and in the future, the optimal set of motivations might not be very recognizable as "human" in either their attitudes or underlying architecture. These beings wouldn't be as arbitrary as paperclip maximizers, but I think it's easy to see how inhuman a person who was solely focused on self-replication would strike us as (assuming we could see past the personable attitudes which he would instrumentally employ.) To borrow the jargon of Tyler Cowen, expanding - or innovating, rather - neurodiversity and being able to select over cognitive profiles would have a transformative effect on social evolution, and I'd venture to say that our highly limited abilities to do so are a necessary condition of our being able to construct an ideal of what is "human."

Are transhumanists blind to this possibility - nay, likelihood? I doubt it, and I'm sure I'm beating someone's dead horse here. But if so, at least this post touches on the problematic esotericism (is that a word?) which seems to exist in some circles. In the end, I think the possible desirability of moving beyond the human condition deserves discussions and debate, and I have to wonder whether transhumanists purposely avoid this for PR reasons. Live forever! Expand your mind! Leap tall buildings in a single bound! It sounds nice, but it brushes aside the fact that new technologies really will have even broader social consequences than most critics would recognize. But I do believe that a lot of transhumanists really believe that new technologies will simply make it easier for people to acquire pleasure, either because the technologies will be developed selectively (no one will make AIs / emulated brains with motivations significantly different than ours) or because they're simply blind to the full set of possible consequences of new technologies.

Myself, I do see a hedonistic race to the bottom (so to speak) in the future, and that sometime in my lifetime people these issues will become salient enough that we'll have to seriously consider the merits of allowing the engineering of "alien" cognitive profiles. It'll be an interesting debate, for sure.

(Authors' note: Since this is my first post here, I figured I'd add a quick blurb. I'm a second-year PhD student of economics at George Mason University, and I like being involved in a lot of the discussion that occurs in this section of the blogosphere, and hence I'm trying to make my own contributions as I find inspiration. Future posting will probably be somewhat contingent on the quantity and quality of comments I receive, so don't be shy if you have any thoughts on what I've written... though I'm not sure if I should expect too many readers on this post, we'll see. In any case, that's all for now.)