Koonin Offers a Check on “The Science”

I ordered Steven Koonin’s Unsettled? more out of perversity than honest curiosity. It was a vote for a skeptic, for a man labelled a “denier” and thus worthy of canceling. I was wrong on several counts: it is holding on Amazon with a fairly high rating, and, I was able to get something out of it. He clearly wants to reach people like me, bewildered by charts and graphs. The tables are there, but his style and analogies accessible. (Which means it is dumbed down, but I appreciate his desire for a larger audience.) He has some of the commonsense of Lomborg: practical, prioritizing what is certain, seldom emphasizing the “wrong” and more often the imprecise, the unknown. Some reviewers found him full of himself, but his voice is that of a close reader, looking at the body of reports, comparing assertions and data with the summaries and interpretations. I assume his readings are honest and he is a good physicist but what do I know.

What struck me were the assumptions of a method he promotes, one other disciplines use and he sees as appropriate. In Chapter 11, “Fixing the Broken Science,” he suggests major reports on climate would benefit from being “Red Teamed.” The “Red Team” critiques it, “trying to identify and evaluate its weak spots,” “a qualified adversarial group would be asked ‘What’s wrong with this argument?’” Then the authors, the “Blue Team” rebuts, seeking more information, firming up arguments, gaining precision. He looks at examples where a report’s data did not support the conclusions or summaries (sometimes leading to popular articles with further overstatements). Perhaps the authors had more data, perhaps the summaries were written by those holding too strong an opinion to let the results stand on their own. Perhaps. . . But, of course, if conclusions don’t match research, that’s important.

Traditionally, peer review even in the humanities is designed to note such problems, but these have been less and less rigorous as more subjective definitions of “truth” evolve (or perhaps of careerism). More importantly, “The Science” (climate consensus) is not limited to the ivory tower; it influences awards of positions, grants, research. And, it affects policy. Seeing “The Science” as “settled” tempts those doing “science.”

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“Follow the Science”: the Winning Political Slogan of 2020

Voting in the 2020 American presidential election raised the question posed by Johnny Carson’s game show “Who Do You Trust” (1957-1963). Candidate Biden was chosen based on trust in his half century track record as a political centrist opposed to his Party’s left wing agenda to promote racial, economic and environmental justice. “Follow the Science” on the pandemic became a campaign theme to bolster trust because scientists – unlike lifetime politicians – are perceived as purveyors of truth. The campaign worked, then centrism was abandoned.

COVID 19 brought to the fore the differences between advocates of science-driven management – the premise of not just pandemic management but the entire Biden Administration agenda – and competitive markets. How can producers and consumers stumble onto greater truths than scientists? Economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” explained how – almost a century before the naturalist, geologist and biologist Charles Darwin’s “origin”. Scientific investigations were historically the domain of idle rich like Smith and Darwin, because in addition to the need for peer review independent from political influence, they were expensive, time consuming and only infrequently produced interesting results.

Today almost-universal government funding either directly or indirectly has inevitably and irredeemable introduced bias (and sometimes worse)  into science, particularly the social sciences. Political narratives feed back into the data, producing more noise .

To Tell The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Panelists grilled witnesses on “To Tell the Truth” (1956-1968) to identify the real from fictitious characters. Economist Raj Chetty notes:

“As is the case with epidemiologists, the fundamental challenge faced by economists — and a root cause of many disagreements in the field — is our limited ability to run experiments. If we could randomize policy decisions and then observe what happens to the economy and people’s lives, we would be able to get a precise understanding of how the economy works and how to improve policy. But the practical and ethical costs of such experiments preclude this sort of approach.”

Hence economists, like virologists, rely on limited models to make generalizations. Virologists study the cellular makeup of a virus to explain pandemics. Economists study discrimination to reach a generalized truth about systemic racism, or financial panics to understand contagion. Physicists search for sub-atomic Higgs Boson particles to explain the origins and workings of the universe(s).

Witnesses in American court rooms on Perry Mason (1957-1966) swore to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” under penalty of law. Scientific truth is a building block. Economists can then apply their tools, e.g., cost benefit, present value, probability, value of life, etc. to various alternatives to determine the whole truth and develop policies that are in the “public interest.”

But economists and politicians don’t take that oath. 95% of social scientists and historians identified as liberal/democratic, a bias toward progressive political action. The word “policy” derives from the Greek word for politics which is generally not aligned with the public interest.

Historians are even more liberal than economists, but most object to the 1619 Project. It’s not the income inequality caused by market capitalism, but government favoritism that’s unjust. Environmentalists use limited anti-capitalist models  to produce seriously sub-optimal policy recommendations. This science isn’t “the whole truth and nothing but.”

Scientific certainties spanning decades or even centuries are often proven wrong with better methods and larger samples or metadata. The federal government has for a half century warned against animal fats in favor of margarine even though metadata disproved the theory in 2018. Just as virology models assume contagion due to irrational public behavior, economic models of “financial panic” assume uninformed individuals irrationally run on solvent banks; in actual fact depositors acted perfectly rational, queuing only at insolvent banks that were paying out at face value on a first come, first served basis. Large scale economic models that suffer from the bias of small scale models tend to over-estimate the benefits of political intervention and under-estimate the unseen “unintended” but predictable indirect costs.

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Dilèm Aksyon Kolektif nan Matisan

Generatim discite cultus

(Learn the culture proper to each after its kind)

— Virgil, Georgics II

Stephen Biddle, Nonstate Warfare: the Military Methods of Guerrillas, Warlords, and Militias (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021)

one-to-many entity-relationship symbol superposed over map of Martissant, Haiti

By way of making this more than a merely armchair review, I will be discussing the developing situation of state failure in Haiti, which is providing a personally harrowing example of the phenomena theorized and studied in this book. NB: additional situation reports like the one I quote from below will appear at this OCHA webpage.

I. Increasingly Scale-Free Military Activity in the 21st Century

In this follow-up to 2004’s Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (also from Princeton), Stephen Biddle continues to elucidate the many ramifications of the one-to-many relationship which came to dominate the battlefield between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Over that century and in the decades that followed, individual-service weapons increased in rate of fire from a (very) few rounds per minute to ~10 rounds per second, in effective range from ~100 to >300 meters, and in accuracy from (optimistically) 10 to 1.5 milliradians. Say 2½ orders of magnitude improvement in RoF, half an order of magnitude in range, and one order of magnitude in accuracy; multiplying these together to create a sort of index of effectiveness, I get an overall change of 4 orders of magnitude, with stark implications for battlefield environments.

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A (partially successful) attempt at a reasoned response

to Harris/Biden in Atlanta on Friday. Or an exercise explaining Why I swear at the tv. Mid-way to rational thought, it is at least better than ***!!!###. Aside: Posting here is a great gift. Writing – like speech with others – forces us to use words. Our founders would use the word deliberate, to move from gut response to reason. Let’s begin with them for perspective:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . . “

“Hate crimes” violate not only our laws but our core belief that in each (and all) is a divine spark, that is one way we are truly equal. However, “hate” for an individual or a random act of pointless violence is also hate. Inchoate anger is hardly virtuous. Haters choose the weak, the dependent, the isolated, the outlier; they want neither consequences nor pricks of conscience. “Knock out” punches throw the weak, the elderly, the unprepared to the ground and are often too random to easily assign blame; knowing society identifies less with such victims makes quick punishment less likely; an important distance comes from convincing one’s self such a victim is not “equal”, is not human – that stills the conscience.

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First, clear the stage for a one party state

In August, I posted an old Firing Line with Richard Pipes. Before Buckley and Pipes discussed particulars, Kinsley summed up Pipes’ argument that the Russian revolution was arguably the most important event of the 20th century, setting a pattern copied by Hitler, Mao, etc. and unfortunately etc. First, clear the stage for a one party state, then give omnipotent power within the state to the political police, and finally enforce that power with deadly terror and “re-education” camps.

Now, a couple of elections and more months of Covid, we seem farther down the path. The “political police” with help from the tech giants have made almost everything political and then started pruning, “cancelling.” Standing our military down to facilitate self-inspection and self-awareness training, fear-mongering about white nationalist extremists all intensify “white fragility” courses. The mainstream news celebrates the appropriateness of Biden’s speech at the Prayer Breakfast, but to others his speech of dark times and enemies within is worrisome. By “within,” despite the occasion, he didn’t mean ever present temptation but rather the “other” – white nationalist insurrectionists. Re-education for that “other,” re-education in the 1619 project, in federal fragility workshops, and now, the military, standing down to spend time in self-flagellation.

Tight-knit associations of family or interests or faiths keep total politicization at bay as does our tradition, “Don’t tread on me” flags remain in many homes. Independence is stronger in red states. Still. That televised discussion from decades ago moved in the back of my head this fall: the election came, Covid waxed and waned, and I wondered if Republicans could ever win elections with new rules, new states, new judges. We were, it is clear, the brush to be cleared away and not the ruler in the one-party state. My fears may be hyperbolic. I hope and in my calmer moments think so. But then we need frustrate the Democrat’s dream.

And that means, as some of the sharper knives in the Congressional drawer have noted, making election laws clear and just.

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