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Science, PseudoScience and Society

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It's not easy to write about pseudo science. The problem has to do with the fluid nature of the concept. It has no single, precise meaning and there is little agreement about its constituent elements. It involved subjugation of scientific aims to political goals and deliberate attempt in deception and subsequent cover up. But recently almost all science became political and all politics involved deception: to say that a politician is not lying is the same as to say that an alcoholic is not drinking. Still there are different degrees of lies and different level of dencity of the "cloud of deception". Lysenkoism probably represents classic early example when an set of obvious lies was supported by repressive apparatus of state. What we saw it as a tragedy in Stalin's Russia genetics, we now see it as a farce in USA economics with neo-classical economics flourishing with the supportive guidance of neoliberal state and financial oligarchy. 

One of the most dangerous feature of  deception schemes use by pseudoscience is Faustian bargain when one trades the independence for political influence, the power grab. And despite popular image of scientists they proved to be as corruptible, if not more corruptible, as anybody else. Historically the scientific community is generally held together and all its affairs are peacefully managed through its joint acceptance of the same fundamental scientific beliefs. Science is best practiced in a voluntary, peaceful and free atmosphere.  But that idyllic arrangement firmly belongs to  the past. Now we can talk only about the level of political pressure on scientists via research grants, not so much about presence or absence of such a pressure.  What really matters as far as politics and science is concerned is what type of environment the individual scientists have to work in and what degree of freedom they can enjoy.

Historically the situation changed irrevocably since early XX contrary, which signified discovery of atomic particles.  It should be understood that the modern scientist, built in the modern "neoliberal" democracies, is at the same time - and it is possible that even in the first place - a political agent, a manipulator. For the unwashed masses a public scientist represent the ultimate carrier of truth for a given discipline, so his opinion have a distinct political weight. And the architects of these systems use this values of scientists to the fullest extent possible. Like we can see with neoclassical economics, scientists have turned into an instrument of cognitive manipulation, when  under the guise of science financial oligarchy promote beneficial to itself a false and simplistic picture of the world, which brainwash the masses into "correct" thinking.

In this sense one can say that Lysenkoism represented a natural side effect of  shrinking of freedom of the scientific community and growing influence of political power on science. As by Frederick Seitz noted in his The Present Danger To Science and Society

Everyone knows that the scientific community faces financial problems at the present time. If that were its only problem, some form of restructuring and allocation of funds, perhaps along lines well tested in Europe and modified in characteristic American ways, might provide solutions that would lead to stability and balance well into the next century. Unfortunately, the situation is more complex, made so by the fact that the scientific establishment has become the object of controversy from both outside and inside its special domain. The most important aspects of the controversy are of a new kind and direct attention away from matters that are sufficiently urgent to be the focus of a great deal of the community's attention.

The assaults on science from the outside arise from such movements as the ugly form of "political correctness" that has taken root in important portions of our academic community. There are to be found, in addition, certain tendencies toward a home-grown variant of the anti-intellectual Lysenkoism that afflicted science in the Stalinist Soviet Union. So-called fraud cases are being dealt with in new, bureaucratic ways that cut across the traditional methods of arriving at truth in science. From inside the scientific community, meanwhile, there are challenges that go far beyond those that arise from the intense competition for the limited funds that are available to nourish the country's scientific endeavor.

The critical issue of arriving at a balanced approach to funding for science is being subordinated to issues made to seem urgent by unhealthy alliances of scientists and bureaucrats. Science and the integrity of its practitioners are under attack and, increasingly, legislators and bureaucrats shape the decisions that determine which paths scientific research should take. There is, in addition, a sinister tendency, especially in environmental affairs, toward considering the undertaking of expensive projects that are proposed by some scientists to remedy worst-case formulations of problems before the radical and expensive remedies are proven to be needed. They are viewed seriously though they are based on the advice of opportunistic alarmists in science who leap ahead of what is learned from solid research to encourage support for the expensive remedies they perceive to be necessary. The potential for very great damage to science and society is real.

Of course, the rise of 'Lysenkoism' in the Soviet Union in the late 40th of the twentieth century is one of the most tragic pages of the history of science.  Trofim Lysenko, a Soviet agronomist, came to prominence as the proponent of a theory of heredity that stood in direct opposition to Mendelianism. The details of this theory need not concern us, except to note that it was 'Larmarckist' in its contention that it is possible for organisms to inherit acquired characteristics.  This was wrong and the principles of Mendelianism - the theory of heredity - were well understood by then. But Lysenko theory fitted nicely with the Soviet ideology. Particularly, the idea that acquired characteristics could be inherited held out the promise of the perfectibility of mankind which as strange as it may sound was the necessary precondition to irreversible victory of socialism/communism (later when nationalistic forces  tore apart the USSR  it became clear that such hopes are completely misplaced). 

So the Stalinist state intervened in the pre-exiting scientific struggle by declaring the victor and the consequences, certainly for many of the scientists involved and arguably also for the USSR agriculture, were disastrous.  The essence of Lysenkoism is that pseudo-scientific theory became a pseudo-religious cult and the power of state was used to suppress dissidents. Many scientists were exiled; some killed. Unfortunately we cannot dismiss the obviously pernicious use of ideology by Lysenko and his supporters simply as an aberration of the era that is often brushed aside as 'the cult of personality' (with or without naming the personality in question). This proved to be much more dangerous and at the same time remarkably resilient phenomenon that survived the dissolution of the USSR. Actually the situation repeated with the USA economics when anything that was not neo-classic was suppressed was by-and-large similar although this time this time it happened without any killings.

Do not fool yourself that Lysenkoism is irrevocably connected with communist ideology. The link was poorly accidental. In reality Lysenkoism emerged more like a cult which was extremely convenient for the control freaks in high position in government. It's not a secret that a lot of high-level administrators in academic institutions belong to the category of micromanagers and as such they are naturally predisposed to Lysenkoism.  

In general "Lysenkovisation of  science" occurs when the state tries to control both the methodologies and goals of scientific activity and that happens all over the world, although to different degree.

In the USSR huge bureaucratic institutions such as VASKhNIL and VIEM had been set up with the specific goal to control resources and, especially, scientific press.  Part of the reason that Lysenkoism gained official support in the Soviet Union was because the Mendelian approach to genetics contradicted official ideology, in particular, Engels's dialectical materialism. In early 50th, just before his death Stalin began to sense that Lysenkoism can hinder practical science by interfering with the academic atmosphere of toleration of dissent most conducive to scientific accomplishment. He even went as far as to declare that

“no science can develop and proper without the clash of opinions, without freedom of criticism.”

But it was too late...

Other governments are also far from being immune from this kind of tendency to select between scientific theories on the basis of ideology rather than the balance of evidence.

More benign variant of Lysenkoism that does not rely on the power of the state is usually called Cargo Cult ScienceAnother related term is "Mayberry Machiavellis". A long time ago -- well, actually it was just a year, but it seems like a lot longer than that -- a former Bush advisor John DiIulio got into quite a bit of trouble for revealing to Esquire that the White House did not possess, in any conventional definition of the term, a policy-making process:

...on social policy and related issues, the lack of even basic policy knowledge, and the only casual interest in knowing more, was somewhat breathtaking—discussions by fairly senior people who meant Medicaid but were talking Medicare; near-instant shifts from discussing any actual policy pros and cons to discussing political communications, media strategy, et cetera. Even quite junior staff would sometimes hear quite senior staff pooh-pooh any need to dig deeper for pertinent information on a given issue...

This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis—staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible.

Dan Gardner - Senior Writer for The Ottawa Citizen writes: "Cabinet meetings were scripted, Mr. O'Neill discovered, by White House staffers who sent advance notes to cabinet secretaries telling them when they were 'supposed to speak, about what, and for how long.'" Is this the shadow of Politburo or what?

There are also strong analogies between Reaganomics and Lysenkoism. Useful discussion is at  "The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic Economics"

The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic Economics, by David Colander, Hans Föllmer, Armin Haas, Michael Goldberg, Katarina Juselius, Alan Kirman, and Thomas Lux: [From the conclusion] ..."We believe that economics has been trapped in a sub-optimal equilibrium in which much of its research efforts are not directed towards the most prevalent needs of society. Paradoxically self-reinforcing feedback effects within the profession may have led to the dominance of a paradigm that has no solid methodological basis and whose empirical performance is, to say the least, modest. Defining away the most prevalent economic problems of modern economies and failing to communicate the limitations and assumptions of its popular models, the economics profession bears some responsibility for the current crisis. It has failed in its duty to society to provide as much insight as possible into the workings of the economy and in providing warnings about the tools it created. It has also been reluctant to emphasize the limitations of its analysis. We believe that the failure to even envisage the current problems of the worldwide financial system and the inability of standard macro and finance models to provide any insight into ongoing events make a strong case for a major reorientation in these areas and a reconsideration of their basic premises."

While at the surface it looks like rent-seeking behavior of dishonest economists the analogy is pretty strong. A broad critique of Neoclassical economics has been put forward in the book Debunking Economics by Steve Keen  See, for example:

Dr. Nikolai Bezroukov


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If history repeats itself...how incapable must Man be of learning from experience

George Bernard Shaw

"No science is immune to the infection of politics and the corruption of power."

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974),
British scientist, author.
Encounter (London, July 1971).

[Feb 01, 2014]  1,400 Sue General Electric, Toshiba and Hitachi for Fukushima Disaster

 Zero Hedge


We’ve previously noted that General Electric should be held partially responsible for the Fukushima reactor because General Electric knew that its reactors were unsafe:

5 of the 6 nuclear reactors at Fukushima are General Electric Mark 1 reactors.

GE knew decades ago that the design was faulty.

ABC News reported in 2011:

Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.

Questions persisted for decades about the ability of the Mark 1 to handle the immense pressures that would result if the reactor lost cooling power, and today that design is being put to the ultimate test in Japan. Five of the six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which has been wracked since Friday’s earthquake with explosions and radiation leaks, are Mark 1s.

“The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant,” Bridenbaugh told ABC News in an interview. “The impact loads the containment would receive by this very rapid release of energy could tear the containment apart and create an uncontrolled release.”

***

Still, concerns about the Mark 1 design have resurfaced occasionally in the years since Bridenbaugh came forward. In 1986, for instance, Harold Denton, then the director of NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, spoke critically about the design during an industry conference.

“I don’t have the same warm feeling about GE containment that I do about the larger dry containments,” he said, according to a report at the time that was referenced Tuesday in The Washington Post.

“There is a wide spectrum of ability to cope with severe accidents at GE plants,” Denton said. “And I urge you to think seriously about the ability to cope with such an event if it occurred at your plant.”

***

When asked if [the remedial measures performed on the Fukushima reactors by GE before 2011] was sufficient, he paused. “What I would say is, the Mark 1 is still a little more susceptible to an accident that would result in a loss of containment.”

The New York Times reported that other government officials warned about the dangers inherent in GE’s Mark 1 design:

In 1972, Stephen H. Hanauer, then a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended that the Mark 1 system be discontinued because it presented unacceptable safety risks. Among the concerns cited was the smaller containment design, which was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen — a situation that may have unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. Later that same year, Joseph Hendrie, who would later become chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a successor agency to the atomic commission, said the idea of a ban on such systems was attractive. But the technology had been so widely accepted by the industry and regulatory officials, he said, that “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power.”

This faulty design has made the Fukushima disaster much worse.

Specifically, the several reactors exploded scattering clumps of radioactive fuel far and wide.

In addition, the Mark 1 included an absolutely insane design element: storing huge quantities of radioactive fuel rods 100 feet up in the air.

The Christian Science Monitor noted:

A particular feature of the 40-year old General Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor model – such as the six reactors at the Fukushima site – is that each reactor has a separate spent-fuel pool. These sit near the top of each reactor and adjacent to it ….

Indeed, the fuel pools have caught fires several times, and now constitute an enormous danger. [More.]

***

Heck of a job, GE …

Unfortunately, there are 23 virtually-identical GE Mark 1 reactors in the U.S.

This is not to say that Tepco and the Japanese government are not to blame also.  They are.

But GE and the American government are largely responsible as well.

Greenpeace pointed out in in 2013:

Former Babcock-Hitachi engineer Mitsuhiko Tanaka said in a Greenpeace video about a flawed reactor vessel Hitachi made for Fukushima: “when the stakes are raised to such a height, a company will not choose what is safe and legal. Even if it is dangerous they will choose to save the company from destruction.”

And Toshiba built 2 of the Fukushima reactors- including reactor number 3 - which is now rubble:

Investigative reporter Greg Palast also notes that Toshiba was one of the main designers of the failed diesel generators which failed during the earthquake and tsunami ... and that the generator design was faulty.

A 1,400-person lawsuit has just been filed to hold GE – as well as 2 other companies responsible for Fukushima reactor construction, Toshiba and Hitachi – responsible.

AP reports:

About 1,400 people filed a joint lawsuit Thursday against three companies that manufactured reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant ….

The 1,415 plaintiffs, including 38 Fukushima residents and 357 people from outside Japan, said the manufacturers — Toshiba, GE and Hitachi — failed to make needed safety improvements to the four decade-old reactors at the Fukushima plant ….

Are they doing it for the money?

Nope:

They are seeking compensation of 100 yen ($1) each, saying their main goal is to raise awareness of the problem.

Postscript: If these companies are not held accountable, they will do it again and again.  For example, the Department of Justice announced earlier this month:

General Electric Hitachi Nuclear Energy Americas LLC (GE Hitachi) has agreed to pay $2.7 million to resolve allegations under the False Claims Act that it made false statements and claims to the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) concerning an advanced nuclear reactor design.  GE Hitachi, a provider of nuclear energy products and services headquartered in Wilmington, N.C., is a subsidiary of General Electric Company (GE) that is also partially owned by Hitachi Ltd., a multinational engineering and manufacturing firm headquartered in Tokyo, Japan.  GE is headquartered in Fairfield, Conn.

***

The government alleged that GE Hitachi concealed known flaws in its steam dryer analysis and falsely represented that it had properly analyzed the steam dryer in accordance with applicable standards and had verified the accuracy of its modeling using reliable data.

[Jan 14, 2014]  9-11 Truth The Mysterious Collapse of WTC Seven

In 12 years, like was the case with JFK assassination, the complex interplay of political forces which could benefit from the event gradually started to come to the surface. As well as related pressure on the researchers. For example a scientist who formerly worked for NIST has reported that the investigation has been “fully hijacked from the scientific into the political realm,” with the result that scientists working for NIST “lost [their] scientific independence, and became little more than ‘hired guns.’”11
Global Research

NIST and Scientific Fraud

With regard to the question of science: Far from being supported by good science, NIST’s report repeatedly makes its case by resorting to scientific fraud.

Before going into details, let me point out that, if NIST did engage in fraudulent science, this would not be particularly surprising. NIST is an agency of the US Department of Commerce. During the years it was writing its World Trade Center reports, therefore, it was an agency of the Bush-Cheney administration. In 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists put out a document charging this administration with “distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends.” By the end of the Bush administration, this document had been signed by over 15,000 scientists, including 52 Nobel Laureates and 63 recipients of the National Medal of Science. [10]

Moreover, a scientist who formerly worked for NIST has reported that it has been “fully hijacked from the scientific into the political realm,” with the result that scientists working for NIST “lost [their] scientific independence, and became little more than ‘hired guns.’”11

Referring in particular to NIST’s work on the World Trade Center, he said everything had to be approved by the Department of Commerce, the National Security Agency, and the Office of Management and Budget—“an arm of the Executive Office of the President,” which “had a policy person specifically delegated to provide oversight on [NIST’s] work.” [12]

One of the general principles of scientific work is that its conclusions must not be dictated by nonscientific concerns – in other words, by any concern other than that of discovering the truth. This former NIST employee’s statement gives us reason to suspect that NIST, while preparing its report on WTC 7, would have been functioning as a political, not a scientific, agency. The amount of fraud in this report suggests that this was indeed the case.

According to the National Science Foundation, the major types of scientific fraud are fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. There is no sign that NIST is guilty of plagiarism, but it is certainly guilty of fabrication, which can be defined as “making up results,” and falsification, which means either “changing or omitting data.” [13]

The omission of evidence by NIST is so massive, in fact, that I treat it as a distinct type of scientific fraud. As philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said in his 1925 book, Science and the Modern World: “It is easy enough to find a [self-consistent] theory . . . , provided that you are content to disregard half your evidence.” The “moral temper required for the pursuit of truth,” he added, includes “[a]n unflinching determination to take the whole evidence into account.” [14]

NIST, however, seemed to manifest an unflinching determination to disregard half of the relevant evidence.

See also Mayberry Machiavellians

[Dec 31, 2013]  Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Reward By

The efforts by the financial players, the interviews show, are part of a sweeping campaign to beat back regulation and shape policies that affect the prices that people around the world pay for essentials like food, fuel and cotton... Underwriting researchers and academic institutions is one part of Wall Street’s efforts to fend off regulation.
 December 27, 2013 | NYTimes.com
Published: 440 Comments

Signs of the energy business are inescapable in and around Houston — the pipelines, refineries and tankers that crowd the harbor, and the gleaming office towers where oil companies and energy traders have transformed the skyline.

And in a squat glass building on the University of Houston campus, a measure of the industry’s pre-eminence can also be found in the person of Craig Pirrong, a professor of finance, who sits at the nexus of commerce and academia.

As energy companies and traders have reaped fortunes by buying and selling oil and other commodities during the recent boom in the commodity markets, Mr. Pirrong has positioned himself as the hard-nosed defender of financial speculators — the combative, occasionally acerbic academic authority to call upon when difficult questions arise in Congress and elsewhere about the multitrillion-dollar global commodities trade.

Do financial speculators and commodity index funds drive up prices of oil and other essentials, ultimately costing consumers? Since 2006, Mr. Pirrong has written a flurry of influential letters to federal agencies arguing that the answer to that question is an emphatic no. He has testified before Congress to that effect, hosted seminars with traders and government regulators, and given countless interviews for financial publications absolving Wall Street speculation of any appreciable role in the price spikes.

What Mr. Pirrong has routinely left out of most of his public pronouncements in favor of speculation is that he has reaped financial benefits from speculators and some of the largest players in the commodities business, The New York Times has found.

While his university’s financial ties to speculators have been the subject of scrutiny by the news media and others, it was not until last month, after repeated requests by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, that the University of Houston, a public institution, insisted that Mr. Pirrong submit disclosure forms that shed some light on those financial ties.

Governments and regulatory agencies in the United States and Europe have been gradually moving to restrict speculation by major banks. The Federal Reserve, concerned about the risks, is reviewing whether it should tighten regulations and limit the activities of banks in the commodities world.

But interviews with dozens of academics and traders, and a review of hundreds of emails and other documents involving two highly visible professors in the commodities field — Mr. Pirrong and Professor Scott H. Irwin at the University of Illinois — show how major players on Wall Street and elsewhere have been aggressive in underwriting and promoting academic work.

The efforts by the financial players, the interviews show, are part of a sweeping campaign to beat back regulation and shape policies that affect the prices that people around the world pay for essentials like food, fuel and cotton.

Professors Pirrong and Irwin say that industry backing did not color their opinions.

Mr. Pirrong’s research was cited extensively by the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed by Wall Street interests in 2011 that for two years has blocked the limits on speculation that had been approved by Congress as part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. During that same time period, Mr. Pirrong has worked as a paid research consultant for one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, according to his disclosure form.

While he customarily identifies himself solely as an academic, Mr. Pirrong has been compensated in the last several years by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the commodities trading house Trafigura, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and a handful of companies that speculate in energy, according to the disclosure forms.

The disclosure forms do not require Mr. Pirrong to reveal how much money he made from his consulting work, and a university spokesman said that the university believed it was strengthened by the financial support it received from the business community. When asked about the financial benefits of his outside activities, Mr. Pirrong replied, “That’s between me and the I.R.S.”

Debating to a Stalemate

No one disputes that a substantial portion of price increases in oil and food over the last decade were caused by fundamental market factors: increased demand from China and other industrializing countries, extreme weather, currency fluctuations and the diversion of grain to biofuel.

But so much speculative money poured into markets — from $13 billion in 2003 to $317 billion at a peak in 2008 — that many economists, and even some commodities traders and investment banks, say the flood became a factor of its own in distorting prices.

Others assert that commodities markets have historically gone through intermittent price bubbles and that the most recent gyrations were not caused by the influx of speculative money. Mr. Pirrong has also argued that the huge inflow of Wall Street money may actually lower costs by decreasing what commodities producers pay to manage their risk.

Mr. Pirrong and the University of Houston are not alone in publicly defending speculation while accepting financial help from speculators. Other researchers have received funding or paid consulting jobs courtesy of major commodities traders including AIG Financial Products, banks including the Royal Bank of Canada or financial industry groups like the Futures Industry Association.

One of the most widely quoted defenders of speculation in agricultural markets, Mr. Irwin of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, consults for a business that serves hedge funds, investment banks and other commodities speculators, according to information received by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act. The business school at the University of Illinois has received more than a million dollars in donations from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and several major commodities traders, to pay for scholarships and classes and to build a laboratory that resembles a trading floor at the commodities market.

Mr. Irwin, the University of Illinois and the Chicago exchange all say that his research is not related to the financial support.

Underwriting researchers and academic institutions is one part of Wall Street’s efforts to fend off regulation.

The industry has also spent millions on lobbyists and lawyers to promote its views in Congress and with government regulators. Major financial companies have also funded magazines and websites to promote academics with friendly points of view. When two studies commissioned by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the financial regulatory agency, raised questions about the possible drawbacks of speculation and of high-frequency trading, lawyers for the Chicago exchange wrote a letter of complaint, saying that its members’ proprietary trading information was at risk of disclosure, and the research program was shut down.

The result of the various Wall Street efforts has been a policy stalemate that has allowed intensive speculation in commodities to continue despite growing concern that it may harm consumers and, for example, worsen food shortages. After a two-year legal delay, the futures trading commission this month introduced plans for new limits on speculation. Some European banks have stopped speculating in food, fearing it might contribute to worldwide hunger.

Mr. Pirrong, Mr. Irwin and other scholars say that financial considerations have not influenced their work. In some cases they have gone against the industry’s interests. They also say that other researchers with no known financial ties to the industry have also raised doubts about any link involving speculation and soaring prices.

But ethics experts say that when academics fail to disclose financial ties, they do a disservice to the public and undermine the perception of impartiality.

“If those that are creating the culture around financial regulation also have a significant, if hidden, conflict of interest, our public is not likely to be well served,” said Gerald Epstein, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who in 2010 released a study about conflicts of interest among academics who advised the federal government after the financial crisis.

Speculation in the Market

Financial ties among professors promoting speculation and the banks and trading firms that profit from it date back to the beginning of the recent commodities boom, which got an intellectual kick-start from academia.

After Congress and the Clinton administration deregulated the commodities markets in 2000, and the Securities and Exchange Commission lowered capital requirements on investment banks in 2004, the financial giants began developing new funds to capitalize on the opportunity.

AIG Financial Products commissioned two highly respected Yale University professors in 2004 to analyze the performance of commodities markets over a half-century. The professors — who prominently acknowledged the financial support — concluded that commodities markets “work well when they are needed most,” namely when the stock and bond markets falter.

Money flowed into the commodities markets, and although the markets have cooled in the last two years, the price of oil is now four times what it was a decade ago, and corn, wheat and soybeans are all more than twice as expensive.

A public uproar about the rising prices became heated in the spring of 2008, as oil soared and gas prices became an issue in the presidential campaign. Congress scheduled public hearings to explore whether speculation had become so excessive it was distorting prices.

Financial speculators are investors who bet on price swings without any intention of taking delivery of the physical commodity. They can help smooth the volatility of the market by adding capital, spreading risk and offering buyers and sellers a kind of price insurance. But an assortment of studies by academics, congressional committees and consumer advocate groups had found evidence suggesting that the wave of speculation that accelerated in 2003 had at times overwhelmed the market.

Financial speculators accounted for 30 percent of commodities markets in 2002, and 70 percent in 2008. As gasoline topped $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, Congress tried to soothe angry motorists by pushing for restrictions on oil speculation.

Mr. Pirrong jumped into the fray. He wrote papers, blog posts and opinion pieces for publications like The Wall Street Journal, calling the concern about speculation “a witch hunt.”

Mr. Pirrong also testified before the House of Representatives in 2008 and, identifying himself as an academic who had worked for commodities exchanges a decade earlier, he warned that congressional plans to rein in speculators would only make matters worse.

“Indeed, such policies are likely to harm U.S. consumers and producers,” he said. When oil company executives, traders and investment banks cited speculation as a major cause of surging prices which, by some estimates, was costing American consumers more than $300 billion a year, Mr. Pirrong dutifully contradicted them.

Mr. Pirrong’s profile grew as he sat on advisory panels and hosted conferences with senior executives from the trading world as well as top federal regulators. Last year, Blythe Masters, head of commodity trading at JPMorgan Chase, approached him to write a report for a global bank lobbying group, the Global Financial Markets Association.

The report was completed in July 2012, but the association declined to release it. Mr. Pirrong said it was because he had reached the conclusion that banks should be regulated more heavily than other commodity traders. “I wouldn’t change the call, so they sat on the report,” he wrote on his blog, The Streetwise Professor.

What Mr. Pirrong did not reveal in his public statements about the report is that he had financial ties to both sides of that debate: the commodities traders as well as the banks. Ms. Masters declined to comment. Over the years, Mr. Pirrong has resisted releasing details of his own financial dealings with speculators, and when The Times first requested his disclosure forms in March, the University of Houston said that none were required of him. The disclosure forms Mr. Pirrong ultimately filed in November indicate that since 2011, he has been paid for outside work involving 11 different clients. Some fees are for his work as an expert witness, testifying in court cases on behalf of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a bank and a company that makes futures-trading software. The commodities firm Trafigura contracted him to conduct a research project.

Mr. Pirrong is also a member of the advisory board for TruMarx Partners, a company that sells software to energy traders, a position that entitles him to a stock option package.

It was reported in The Nation magazine in November that the University of Houston’s Global Energy Management Institute, where Mr. Pirrong serves as a director, has also received funding from the Chicago exchange, as well as financial institutions that profit from speculation, including Citibank and Bank of America.

On his blog, Mr. Pirrong has dismissed suggestions that his work for a school that trains future oil industry executives creates a conflict of interest.

“Uhm, no, dipstick,” he wrote in 2011, replying to a reader who had questioned his objectivity. “I call ’em like I see ’em.” In a telephone interview last week, Mr. Pirrong said that his consulting work gave him insight into the kind of real-world case studies that improve his research and teaching. “My compensation doesn’t depend on my conclusions,” he said.

When asked about Mr. Pirrong’s disclosure, Richard Bonnin, a university spokesman said only that all employees were given annual training on the school’s policy, which requires researchers to report paid outside consultant work.

Professors as Pitchmen

Concerns about academic conflicts of interest have become a major issue among business professors and economists since the financial crisis. In 2010, the documentary “Inside Job” blasted a handful of prominent academic economists who did not reveal Wall Street’s financial backing of studies which, in some cases, extolled the virtues of financially unsound assets. Two years later, the American Economic Association adopted tougher disclosure rules.

Even with the guidelines, however, financial firms have been able to use the resources and credibility of academia to shape the political debate.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, at times blur the line between research and public relations.

The exchange’s public relations staff has helped Mr. Irwin shop his pro-speculation essays to newspaper op-ed pages, according to emails reviewed by The Times. His studies, writings, videotaped speeches and interviews have been displayed on the exchange’s website and its online magazine.

In June 2009, when a Senate subcommittee released a report about speculation in the wheat market that raised concerns about new regulations, executives at the Chicago exchange turned to Mr. Irwin and his University of Illinois colleagues to come up with a response.

Dr. Paul Ellinger, department head of agriculture and consumer economics, said, “The interactions that have occurred here are common among researchers.”

A spokesman for the exchange said that Mr. Irwin was just one of a “large and growing pool of esteemed academics, governmental editors and editors in the mainstream press” whose work it follows and posts on its various publications. While the C.M.E. has given more than $1.4 million to the University of Illinois since 2008, most has gone to the business school and none to the School of Agriculture and Consumer Economics, where Mr. Irwin teaches. And when Mr. Irwin asked the exchange’s foundation for $25,000 several years ago to sponsor a website he runs to inform farmers about agricultural conditions and regulations, his request was denied.

Still, some of Mr. Irwin’s recent research has been funded by major players in the commodities world. Last year, he was paid $50,000 as a consultant for Gresham Investment Management in Chicago, which manages $16 billion and runs its own commodities index fund. He noted Gresham’s sponsorship in the paper and on his disclosure form, and said it gave him the opportunity to use new data and test new hypotheses.

Mr. Irwin also works for a business called Yieldcast that caters to agricultural producers, investments banks and other speculators, selling them predictions of corn and soybean yields. Mr. Irwin has said he does not consider it a conflict because he works only with the mathematical forecasting models and never consults with clients.

“The debate about financialization is primarily about the large index funds, none of whom are clients,” he said.

Mr. Irwin declined to provide a list of his clients, and the university said its disclosure requirements did not compel him to do so.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 31, 2013

An article on Saturday about financial rewards from Wall Street to academic experts whose research supports the financial community’s views on commodity trading misidentified a Canadian bank and commodities trader that financed the work of academic researchers or paid consultants. It is the Royal Bank of Canada, not the Bank of Canada, which is that nation’s central bank. The article also rendered incorrectly the university affiliation of Scott H. Irwin, a prominent defender of speculation in agricultural markets. He is a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — not Champaign-Urbana. And a picture caption with the continuation of the article misidentified the subject of one of several pictures. The lower right photograph showed the atrium of the University of Illinois’s business school — not its Market Information Lab, which was shown behind Professor Irwin in the photograph at the left.

Related

[Dec 9, 2013] How journals like Nature, Cell and Science are damaging science by Randy Schekman

December 9, 2013 | theguardian.com

The Guardian, Monday  14.30 EST
Jump to comments (228)

We all know what distorting incentives have done to finance and banking. The incentives my colleagues face are not huge bonuses, but the professional rewards that accompany publication in prestigious journals – chiefly Nature, Cell and Science.

These luxury journals are supposed to be the epitome of quality, publishing only the best research. Because funding and appointment panels often use place of publication as a proxy for quality of science, appearing in these titles often leads to grants and professorships. But the big journals' reputations are only partly warranted. While they publish many outstanding papers, they do not publish only outstanding papers. Neither are they the only publishers of outstanding research.

These journals aggressively curate their brands, in ways more conducive to selling subscriptions than to stimulating the most important research. Like fashion designers who create limited-edition handbags or suits, they know scarcity stokes demand, so they artificially restrict the number of papers they accept. The exclusive brands are then marketed with a gimmick called "impact factor" – a score for each journal, measuring the number of times its papers are cited by subsequent research. Better papers, the theory goes, are cited more often, so better journals boast higher scores. Yet it is a deeply flawed measure, pursuing which has become an end in itself – and is as damaging to science as the bonus culture is to banking.

It is common, and encouraged by many journals, for research to be judged by the impact factor of the journal that publishes it. But as a journal's score is an average, it says little about the quality of any individual piece of research. What is more, citation is sometimes, but not always, linked to quality. A paper can become highly cited because it is good science – or because it is eye-catching, provocative or wrong. Luxury-journal editors know this, so they accept papers that will make waves because they explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims. This influences the science that scientists do. It builds bubbles in fashionable fields where researchers can make the bold claims these journals want, while discouraging other important work, such as replication studies.

In extreme cases, the lure of the luxury journal can encourage the cutting of corners, and contribute to the escalating number of papers that are retracted as flawed or fraudulent. Science alone has recently retracted high-profile papers reporting cloned human embryos, links between littering and violence, and the genetic profiles of centenarians. Perhaps worse, it has not retracted claims that a microbe is able to use arsenic in its DNA instead of phosphorus, despite overwhelming scientific criticism.

There is a better way, through the new breed of open-access journals that are free for anybody to read, and have no expensive subscriptions to promote. Born on the web, they can accept all papers that meet quality standards, with no artificial caps. Many are edited by working scientists, who can assess the worth of papers without regard for citations. As I know from my editorship of eLife, an open access journal funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, they are publishing world-class science every week.
 

[Oct 26, 2013]  Bad Science

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science" is an interesting and relevant read
http://www.badscience.net/

In the early days of the EFQM http://www.efqm.org/en/tabid/132/default.aspx  I believe they did some research that showed how the Dunning-Kruger effect inflated self assessment scores from less mature organisations to a level that would be a major achievement for a world class organisation.

James Finister
www.tcs.com
http://coreitsm.blogspot.com/

[Oct 21, 2013]  Pseudoscience - Psychology Wiki

Pseudoscience is a term commonly applied to any body of knowledge, methodology, or practice that is portrayed as scientific but diverges substantially from the required standards for scientific work or is unsupported by scientific research.[1] (See Scientific method.)

The term "pseudoscience" generally has negative connotations because it asserts that things so labeled are inaccurately or deceptively described as science. As such, those labeled as practicing or advocating a "pseudoscience" almost always reject this classification.

[Aug 24, 2013]  The Age of Denial and the Marketplace of Ideas

Economist's View
Mike the Mad Biologist:

The Age of Denial and the Marketplace of Ideas: I probably should have written “The Age of Denial Results from the Marketplace of Ideas.” Physicist Adam Frank at the NY Times tackles the topic of denialism and science ...

Mark Thoma lists a bunch of reasons why this might be the case (boldface mine):

•The cranks have always been there, but today digital technology makes it easier to gain a platform.
•The stakes are higher, so winning is the only thing.
•Scientists have pushed too far and offered evidence as though it were fact, only to have to reverse themselves later (e.g. types of food that are harmful/helpful) eroding trust.
•Science education is so bad that the typical reporter has no idea how to tell fact from “manufactured doubt,” and the resulting he said, she said journalism leaves the impression that both sides have a valid point.
•Scientists became too arrogant and self-important to interact with the lowly public, and it has cost them.
The political sphere has become ever more polarized and insular making it much easier for false ideas intended to promote political or economic gain to reverberate within the groups.
•Nothing has really changed, old people always think their age was the golden one.

I would add to the list:

•The opposition to certain fields and findings of science is central to self-identity and part of a larger world view and way of life (e.g., fundamentalist doctrines). It transcends data-driven assessment of single issues. Typically, people will resist changing their minds and only do so after a trauma or betrayal (personal or group) forces them to confront their inconsistencies.

I would argue the widespread acceptance of racism–I mean the flat-out, stone cold kind, not subtle prejudice–for much of the twentieth century has to be one of the dumbest displays of denialism. And it was certainly tied into notions of self-identity (“If you ain’t better than a…, then who are you better than?”). So the oldsters, like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, were stupid in their own ways.

But I want to return to the notion of a marketplace of ideas. I dislike that metaphor because it implies ideas are judged not on their validity, but on how well they are marketed. The implication of this is that once some rich wacko decides to fund a ‘faith-tank’, that entity essentially becomes a Self-Perpetuating Bullshit Machine, and is unstoppable. It’s relatively cheap to ‘put ideas out there.’ More importantly, there’s no way to stop them from doing so, nor do the individual actors pushing these ideas have any incentive to stop.

One more way we have commodified the previously uncommodifiable*.

*Or least to a recently unprecedented extent.

kievite:

The key problem IMHO is that the science became political.

And well organized minority with money can dictate the political discourse to the less organized majority. That's how societies are organized (Iron law of oligarchy).

That means that well financed cranks employed in think tanks by elite for particular (often nefarious) purposes are now the feature not an aberration. They are an integral part of the modern social landscape.

Remember Academician Trofim Lysenko who pioneered the use a totalitarian state to suppress all research in genetics for almost three decades(1935-1965). Looks like his methods found a lot of talented followers in the West ;-)

Now we have Lysenkoism as a mainstream phenomenon. In other words parts of the science are now organized like high demand cult.

beezer:

The Grand Old Party has fallen prey to a boatload of goofy economic ideas and become the Goofy Old Party. Trickle down, giving rich people tax cuts makes money for everyone else, rising tide lifts all boats (everyone has boats? who knew?), firing people creates more jobs, cutting pay and benefits increases spending and demand, closing voting locations in poor areas increases voting election integrity. But it gets worse, goofy ideas crowd out good ideas.

Romneycare works but the Goofy party has become so goofy it opposed it's own plan in Obamacare. Government spending is all waste. Goofy. So we can't have infrastructure spending that would create good jobs for millions of Americans. Goofy crowds out good. Government R&D is wasteful. Goofy. State funded R&D was the primary innovation force for the past 50 years: Internet, chip technology, Siri, touch screen, and pretty much everything Apple sells, nanotechnology, biotechnology, the algorithm that created Google--the list is almost comprehensive. Goofy crowds out good. But money talks louder than anything else, it seems. And if goofy is what's needed to get that big money happy, then it's goofy we get. From the Goofy Old Party.

jrossi:

I think the biggest factor is the internet giving fools and knaves a huge megaphone. That combined with confusion and distraction go a long way towards explaining this.

As regards science confusion, science is too hard. Only nerds are interested.

Dave:

"But I want to return to the notion of a marketplace of ideas. I dislike that metaphor because it implies ideas are judged not on their validity, but on how well they are marketed."

You might not like it, but can you explain how that isn't an accurate depiction of reality? When faced with the kind of decisions that ordinary people cannot possibly understand, they will tend to choose the better marketing so long as it comes from people that seem to be experts.

For example, if you, an economist, are trying to decide between 2 different personal computer purchases, how do you go about doing it? I doubt you carefully weigh the pros and cons of various RAM sockets and SSD hard drives, but instead talk to someone who you trust who seems like s/he knows what that all means. And the thing is, because you aren't an expert, you can't know if that expert is lying to you.

The same phenomenon happens to most people on matters of public policy. If all the apparent experts you're exposed to are saying global warming is a myth cooked up by Al Gore to convince America to give up their freedom, then you're going to believe it.

grizzled:

The world has become complicated enough that no one can master the facts of more than one or two of a number of technically complicated but highly significant issues.

For instance, consider the question of whether waste material from nuclear power can be disposed of safely. I believe it can solely on the basis of an NSF study, which is the best information I know of. I am totally unable to evaluate the question myself.

Studies of the psychology of denialism have identified the choice of who qualifies as an expert to be a crucial variable. People tend to choose those who give answers that fit the rest of their world view. Present company excepted, of course.

But the only alternative to relying on experts is to be an expert, and this is impossible.

bakho:

Some of these goofy ideas turn out to be good investments. Millions of Rubes will pay top dollar to see statues of Adam and Eve next to the dinosaurs. WTF/

Glen:

Unfortunately we seem to be unable to convince the rest of the world to be science deniers.

Just another reason our economy is being shipped overseas.

Bill Tozier:

Has nobody ever read John Dewey on the importance of habit in psychology? Because yes, of course, and I'm pretty sure he even said why, and how to go about changing it.

And the missing link was: http://books.google.com/books?id=sx74ybdAJ8IC

Dismalist :

Well, another market failure! OK, let's abolish the market in ideas. Expression only with Genehmigung. By whom?

grizzled

" I dislike that metaphor because it implies ideas are judged not on their validity, but on how well they are marketed."

The people who first used this metaphor cheerfully assumed that high quality wins in the marketplace, at least eventually.

We now doubt this. What is the alternative?

 

[Jul 18, 2013] Is Economics a Science or a Religion - by Mark Buchanan

Jul 17, 2013 | Bloomberg

Is economics a science or a religion? Its practitioners like to think of it as akin to the former. The blind faith with which many do so suggests it has become too much like the latter, with potentially dire consequences for the real people the discipline is intended to help.

The idea of economics as religion harks back to at least 2001, when economist Robert Nelson published a book on the subject. Nelson argued that the policy advice economists draw from their theories is never “value-neutral” but foists their values, dressed up to look like objective science, on the rest of us.

Take, for example, free trade. In judging its desirability, economists weigh projected costs and benefits, an approach that superficially seems objective. Yet economists decide what enters the analysis and what gets ignored. Such things as savings in wages or transport lend themselves easily to measurement in monetary terms, while others, such as the social disruption of a community, do not. The mathematical calculations give the analysis a scientific wrapping, even when the content is just an expression of values.

Similar biases influence policy considerations on everything from labor laws to climate change. As Nelson put it, “the priesthood of a modern secular religion of economic progress” has pushed a narrow vision of economic “efficiency,” wholly undeterred by a history of disastrous outcomes.

Rational Responses

The economic zeal reached its peak several years back, when a number of economists openly celebrated what they called economic imperialism -- the notion that the inherent superiority of their way of thinking would lead it to displace all other social sciences. Academics sought to bring the advanced calculus of rationality -- with its assumption that everything can be explained by people’s perfectly rational responses to incentives -- to the primitives in fields ranging from sociology to anthropology.

The imperial adventure lost much of its momentum in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. More attention has turned to the psychological, or behavioral, revolution, which has established that the rational ideal of economic theory isn’t even a good starting point as a crude caricature of the way real people act. We’re often goal-oriented, of course, but we seek those goals through imperfect heuristic rules and trial and error, learning as we go. If anything, rationality is the anomaly in human life.

Of equal significance is a growing acceptance of Nelson’s larger point: that economics is riddled with hidden value judgments that make its advice far from scientific. In one notable development, the Journal of Economic Perspectives published a paper by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson that examines how value judgments -- in this case, the dismissal of political repercussions -- have undermined well-intentioned economic interventions.

Most economists, for instance, see the weakening of trade unions in the U.S. and other Western nations in the past few decades as a good thing, because unions’ monopoly power over wages impairs companies’ ability to adapt to the demands of the market. As Acemoglu and Robinson point out, however, unions do a lot more than influence the supply and cost of labor. In particular, they have historically played a prominent role in creating and supporting democracy, in limiting the political power of corporations, and in mitigating income inequality.

Narrow policy analyses have repeatedly led economists to push for policies that have had unexpected consequences for the balance of political power. Acemoglu and Robinson cite the push to privatize industries in Russia in the 1990s. The idea was that private ownership, no matter how it came about, would ultimately benefit the entire economy. In practice, a rigged process gave rise to an illegitimate oligarchy and an increase in inequality that set the stage for the ascendance of President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime.

Tragic Flaw

More recently, the gospel of economic efficiency helped lay the groundwork for the financial crisis, mostly by encouraging overconfidence in the wonders of financial engineering. Theory-induced dreams of market discipline provided justification for stripping away entirely sensible regulations, such as barriers between commercial and investment banking, and for avoiding oversight of the booming trade in derivatives. One result was an extremely wealthy financial lobby that is still working hard to block reform.

In all these cases, the tragic flaw lies in the heady confidence that comes with a one-size-fits-all theoretical framework. There’s a real danger in seeing economics as an objective science from which all values have been stripped. Nelson preferred an older, more modest perspective on economics espoused by Frank Knight, a founder of the University of Chicago’s free-market school of thought. Knight expressed the view that truly careful social and economic analysis emphasizes the limits to human knowledge and “the fatuousness of over-sanguine expectations” from economic-policy designs, including those favoring free enterprise.

In short, economists would do well to derive their prescriptions from observations of how the world really works, with a healthy respect for its complexity. Faith is no substitute for informed inquiry.

(Mark Buchanan, a theoretical physicist and the author of “Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer of this article: Mark Buchanan at buchanan.mark@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net  

About Mark Buchanan»

Mark Buchanan, a theoretical physicist, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the ... MORE

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[Jul 14, 2013]  The Republican War on Science  by   Chris Mooney

Amazon.com
Francis

Republican/Dominionist Science in an Era of Burgeoning Totalitarianism, June 20, 2013

Chris Mooney's book reviews some aspects of what he called in its time "the Bush administration's war on science," and he was right. To please a constituency located on the far right of the political spectrum that usually abuses the Christian religion to impose their views on a plural and democratic society, Mr Bush and his allies simply denied science and the results of scientific studies that did not flatter their partisanship. So, where do we go now? The book, maybe, gives an idea that should be developed; Chris Mooney describes the Bush administration as the first post-modern, post-scientific administration. The author is kind enough to write that the Bush administration did not understand the scientific process.

Frankly, I concluded after the reading of this book that the partisanship of the Bush era, the misinterpretations, the unscientific attacks against the rights of women and gays (among other minorities), were simply premeditated acts to satisfy the totalitarian agenda of the Christian Dominionists (and of some really rich persons who put their interests first, ignoring what science dictates for the preservation of humankind).

My present writing leads me naturally to the present time, with its abuses of privacy that some whistle-blowers proved that the Bush administration began... Considering the degree of technological discoveries that have been made by military and military sponsored researchers, will we some day add a missing part to the scientific puzzle that Chris Mooney begins to put together in this book, although his posterior writings rather try to describe the conservative mind?

Whatever, when I was a child I was told that Nazi science was abominable, and I laughed at communist science. Today, what could we say of the "Republican Science"?

A Patriotic Professor

Can't Recommend This Book Enough August 31, 2005

I've been psyched about the release of this book for months now, and it doesn't disappoint. Far from it: this is an unbelievably thorough, balanced, and well-researched study of a phenomenon that ALL Americans need to be concerned about, no matter what their political stripes are. While the title may mislead you into thinking that this is a partisan book, Mooney's dedication here is to the integrity of the scientific research process, and not at all to politics. Indeed, his argument is that the politicization of the scientific research process is bad no matter which party does it, but that the Bush Administration and the current incarnation of the Republican Party is particularly culpable of abusing science for partisan gain. Indeed, Mooney heaps praise on the Nixon administration science policies, which were much better than what we have under the current president.

Read this book. It's leaps and bounds better than any other political book out today- Coulter AND Franken included.

Dylan Otto Krider

An important and balanced book August 30, 2005

Mooney does a good job at meticulously showing the politicization of science by both sides, but as the title shows, he refuses to make the common journalistic mistake of imposing "false balance" where it is not warranted. Just as you wouldn't say, "people differ on roundness of the Earth", Mooney has the courage and the wherewithall to call a spade a spade - and he doesn't ask you to take his word for it.

The facts are here for anyone with eyes to see. The "perfect storm" of anti-regulatory conservatives and fundamentalist Christians have combined to wage a unified war against science with a vengeance that the disorganized "frankenfood" liberals can only dream of.

Mooney's objective, scientific approach to making his case only makes his partisan conclusions that much more compelling and impossible to deny. In this war of reason vs. ideology, Mooney plants himself firmly on the side of reason, while always being fair. After reading his book, anyone who values science and critical thinking will do the same.

Fred Bortz "Dr. Fred"

A Call to Action for People Who Care About Science September 2, 2005

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

That oft-quoted statement from Carl Sagan captures the essence of the scientific approach to knowledge. Before an idea can achieve the revered status of "theory," it must survive round after round of skeptical criticism.

Evolution, for example, has withstood nearly 150 years of challenges. With minor modifications to Darwin's seminal ideas, it has become perhaps the most robust theory in all of science.

Religious fundamentalists, who oppose that theory as well as abortion and embryonic stem cell research, are major combatants in what journalist Chris Mooney describes in his new book as The Republican War on Science. Allied with them is a force of neo-conservative soldiers who resist the conclusions of environmental research, especially about global climate change.

Yet neither religion nor business is fundamentally opposed to science. Probably a majority of American scientists guide their lives by faith in a Creator, but they do not consider their houses of worship as observatories or laboratories in which to test the existence of a deity. And most modern businesses rely on science and technology to make a profit.

Thus most readers of this book, including liberal Democrats, will consider Mr. Mooney's brash thesis extraordinary. Though they may view it an interesting model of what is happening in American politics today, they will demand extraordinary research before declaring it a viable theory.

Indeed, the evidence supporting the existence of a partisan War on Science will never measure up to the Sagan criterion. The most the author can hope for is that open-minded people will consider his ideas compelling. In that, he has succeeded admirably.

By the time readers finish this book they will understand who the opponents of science are and how they have taken control of the Republican Party. The Party's rightist base has adopted positions that are antithetical to science, not because they oppose science per se but because government policies suggested by the scientific consensus threaten their religious beliefs, their economic status, or their societal influence.

Readers will also see the very effective political strategy that this alliance has evolved: to redefine science, to undermine science, and to misconstrue science even to the point of dismissing scientific consensus in favor of increasingly discredited fringe ideas.

The United States may not be embroiled in a war on science, but that phrase describes a useful model for understanding the dangers of the current administration's antiscientific tactics to our nation's future and its character. For that Republicans and Democrats, scientists and people of faith should be grateful to Chris Mooney.

[Jul 10, 2013] Fundamentalist Christians, Science, and the Democracy by Lawrence Davidson

Logos

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has published an updated study entitled Lobbying for the Faithful: Religious Advocacy Groups in Washington, D.C. According to the study, as of May 2012. there are some 200 organizations engaged in “religious lobbying” and they address about 300 different issues and causes. 18% of them are described as “evangelical Christian” which have a particular interest in “bioethics and life issues.” These include stem cell research and the teaching of evolution.

It is difficult to know the exact numbers these special interests collectively represent. We do know that some 22% of Americans identify themselves as fundamentalist Christians.[1] In terms of a media presence, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, a fundamentalist Christian media effort which started in 1961 and is still broadcasting, is the longest running program on TV and has millions of viewers worldwide.[2] There can be no doubt that when well organized and directed, this constituency represents a politically powerful force. Here are two examples of how they use their influence.

... ... ...

The LA Times had been moved to its florid description of the issue by the actions of President George W Bush. 2001 was the first year of Bush’s presidency, and being a fundamentalist Christian he had instituted prayer sessions and bible study in the White House. Therefore, it came as no surprise that one of Bush’s first major actions was to try to devise a policy toward federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that would meet most of the objections of his Christian compatriots while not totally alienating the medical research community. His compromise was to allow funding on self-reproducing embryonic stem cell lines that the research community had already brought into existence. That is lines of cells created from embryos already destroyed or, as Bush put it, where “the life and death decision has already been made.” There would be no federal funding for research on any new embryonic stem cell lines.

In 2005, Congress (more liberal then than it is today) tried to broadened Bush’s executive order and passed a Stem Cell Enhancement Act permitting federal funding to support stem cell research using embryos bound for disposal by fertility clinics with the written consent of the donor. However, the fundamentalist Christian interest groups objected and President Bush vetoed the bill the day after it was passed. Congress tried again in 2007 and passed the same legislation adding instructions to the National Institute of Health (NIH) to investigate alternative forms of stem cell sourcing. Again President Bush vetoed the bill. This standoff lasted until 2009 when a newly elected President Barak Obama issued his own executive order lifting restrictions on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research and the number self-reproducing stem cell lines available to researches quickly grew.

What this story tells us is that there exists in the United States significant numbers of fundamentalist Christians for whom certain lines of scientific inquiry, including stem cell research, are ideologically anathema. As Dr. Ray Bohlin, author of The Natural Limits of Biological Change, has put it, the embryos from which stem cells are harvested are “of infinite value to God. We are not going to redeem them by killing them for research.”[4] Such Christians are politically well organized and thus, under certain circumstances, able to shape government policy to fit their outlook.

... ... ...

In a democracy like the United States people can believe what they wish as long as their beliefs do not lead to criminal behavior. And, it is within that environment of democratic freedom that fundamentalist Christians have chosen to organize themselves for an effort to forbade the teaching of scientifically based evolution in the public school system, or alternatively, to require the teaching of their bible based version of creation as a valid alternative alongside evolution.

This effort has been on-going since the end of World War I. At that time the scientific theory of evolution was incorrectly thought to have been one of the motivators of the German monarchy’s decision to go to war. This, along with their fundamentalist reading of the bible, led some famous and influential American Christian leaders, such as Williams Jennings Bryan, to crusade against evolution. The result was that, in the 1920s, several states passed laws making it illegal to teach the fact of human evolution. This in turn led to the famous Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925. Scopes was a biology teacher who was prosecuted under such a law in a trial that became a national media event. Paralleling the legislative effort against teaching evolution in the classroom was public pressure that led the major textbook publishers to leave evolution out of their texts until the 1960s.

The major organizations presently involved in this anti-evolution effort are the non-profit Discovery Institute based in Seattle which budgets about $1 million a year to push the notion of intelligent design; the Creation Studies Institute in Florida; Answers in Genesis in Kentucky; and Liberty University in Virginia. A stereotypical motivation for all of this was given by the Southern Baptist Minister Terry Fox who, referring to the effort of the Kansas State Board of Education to allow the teaching of alternatives to evolution, declared that “most people in Kansas don’t think we came from monkeys” (a notion that evolution does not put forth). Fox is correct in that a large majority of Americans believe that God created human beings. Of course, the fact that a majority of people believe something (for instance, that the sun revolves around the earth which itself stands motionless in the heavens) does not mean that it is true.

The laws against teaching evolution in the public schools eventually ran afoul of court decisions which labeled them violations of the separation of church and state. This turn of events has motivated fundamentalist Christians to create the notion of “scientific creationism” and later “intelligent design.” Claiming that these concepts are not derived from religious belief, they have campaigned for them to be taught in the schools as equally valid ideas alongside evolution. All such efforts have been found unconstitutional by the courts and therefore blocked. This has led to resentment and an increased enrollment in Christian schools. As one fundamentalist mother who pulled her children out of public school rather curiously put it, “if students only have one thing to consider, one option, that’s really more brainwashing.”[5]

More importantly, prior to (and also following) all the court decisions against the Christian position, fundamentalists were successful in passing their demands into law in a large number of state legislatures. Indeed, as of 2012, twenty six states have on-going legislative challenges to the teaching of evolution.

Utopia by Stephen Eric Bronner

Logos

Freedom and human dignity mark any serious rendering of utopia. Politics only sets the stage: utopian thinking necessarily privileges the individual in terms of exploring his desires, expanding his interests, and taking control over his life. So, for example, Marx never equated communism with any regime, not even the Paris Commune, but instead with the end of “pre-history” and a world where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” In such a world, he believed, humanity can finally democratically determine its fate in common, consciously and without reference to external determinants like economic interest. Perhaps even more important, however, the classless society must serve as a society in which individualism would flourish.

This vision initially influenced the Bolsheviks who, after all, gained power in 1917 under the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” Left-wing radicals still exhibit nostalgia for the “heroic stage” of the Russian Revolution (1918-1921) when it seemed that all things were possible: the cultural avant-garde working for the people, the abolition of money, the transformation of the nuclear family, the end of hierarchy, and international revolution intent upon creating regimes based on soviets or workers’ councils. The arbitrary exercises of power, the bloodshed, the confusion, the cruelty, and the poverty of those times vanish.

Only an idealized vision remains of what are today completely anachronistic institutions such as soviets in which, as it was once put to me, “everyone will control everything” (naturally without considering the number of meetings this would entail). Many contemporary radicals are inspired only by the image of that “new man” who once seemed ready to take the stage. Trotsky crystallized this utopian communist outlook in his Literature and Revolution (1924) by insisting that ultimately: “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

Utopian experiments undertaken in the past cast a dark shadow over the seemingly pedestrian politics in the present. According to this mode of thinking, differences between existing parties and movements appear negligible. There is only mass society with its culture industry and commercialism. The drama is gone. The existing ensemble of social relations turns into a seamless whole threatening all forms of critical reflection and individuality. The “system” (not class society) is now seen as the problem and anything tainted by instrumental reason or bureaucracy is suspect. Grand narratives are considered mere manipulative props for mass movements, authoritarian parties, and overweening states. Tempering the imbalances of political and economic power is no longer the priority. Nothing associated with real politics is radical enough and, in this way, the perfect becomes an enemy of the good. Staunch belief in utopian ideals excuses indifference to building a better future. As an all or nothing proposition, therefore, utopia can justify passivity as well as fanaticism.

Kievite

"Staunch belief in utopian ideals excuses indifference to building a better future. As an all or nothing proposition, therefore, utopia can justify passivity as well as fanaticism."

Well said. I think is fanaticism, not passivity is the essence of utopian thinking. The arbitrary exercises of power, the bloodshed, the confusion, the cruelty, and the poverty naturally follow.

Along with the Authoritarian personality we can probably talk about "True believers" as another important type of personality, that deserve careful study. When organized this , it is a dangerous type of personality although in a different way then Authoritarians, or, say, psychopaths.

[Jul 08, 2013] Logos Spring 2013: vol. 12, no. 2 Democracy and Science

Alan Sokal: What Is Science and Why Should We Care?

Margaret C. Jacob: The Left, Right and Science: Relativists and Materialists

Philip Kitcher: Plato's Revenge: An Undemocratic Report from an Overheated Planet

Michael Ruse: Democracy and Pseudo-Science

Barbara Forrest: Rejecting the Founders' Legacy: Democracy as a Weapon Against Science

 Lawrence Davidson: Fundamentalist Christians, Science, and the Democracy

[May 30, 2013] Democracy and Pseudo-Science by Michael Ruse

Logos

As Aristotle rightly noted, one swallow does not make a summer.  But I use this little personal story for some more general points I want to make about science and democracy, or more particularly – for I consider this to be true of much of the Steiner output – pseudo-science and democracy.  Let me lay out what seem to me to be some pretty basic points.

First, if democracy means anything then it means letting people have some pretty silly thoughts (Mill 1859).  Of course, what counts as “pretty silly” is a comparative term, but that is no big issue.  Even if you are a minority of one in thinking something pretty silly, you are still obligated to let others have them.  While I find the idea of turning water into wine a very attractive prospect, I don’t think it is true, and moreover I think anyone who believes this has a pretty silly belief.  I am fully aware that most people in the part of the world where I live would not agree, but whether I am a minority of one or a majority faced with but one believer, I should not prevent that person from having those beliefs.  I take it for granted that what I am saying is hedged with the usual caveats.  Personally I find the idea of sex with young children rather silly – rather disgusting actually – but I take it that for the obvious reasons (exploitation and so forth) the tolerance I am expressing does not apply here.  I shall have more to say shortly about the boundaries of tolerance.

Second, pretty silliness is not entirely a subjective matter.  Let’s leave religion on one side (because that is not the topic now) and turn to the realm of the empirical, the world of science.  I take it that down through the centuries philosophers and others interested in the nature of science have managed to articulate a fairly robust set of criteria for distinguishing between genuine science and false or bogus or pseudo-science.  At the risk of seeming intolerably self-serving, but pointing out that they were accepted in a court of law – in an anti-Creationism trial in Arkansas in 1981 — let me give you the criteria that I favor for real science.

  1. It is guided by natural law;
  2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
  3. It is testable against the empirical world;
  4. Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
  5. It is falsifiable.  (Ruse 1988)

I take it that Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection fits these sorts of criteria (Ruse 2006).  It appeals to law – both natural selection and the laws of genetics (formerly Mendelian and now molecular).  It can be tested.  For instance, one can run models to see how efficiently an ant nest uses its resources and then check your results against actual nests.  It is always open to revision – is it selection working here or just random factors (genetic drift)?  And sometimes it is seen to be false or at least potentially so.  The newly discovered little human-like creature, Homo floriensis (nicknamed the “hobbit”) might turn out just to be a diseased, regular Homo sapiens, and not a new species at all.

I take it that something like so-called Creation Science that supposes that Genesis is literally true does not satisfy these criteria.  It appeals to miracles – God created Adam and Eve.  It is certainly not testable nor are its conclusions tentative.  Nothing would persuade its enthusiasts that Noah’s Flood was not literally true.  And it is certainly not falsifiable.  How could it be?  It is based on the Word of God.

Third, I take it that tolerance about people’s beliefs does not extend to letting this sort of stuff be taught in science classrooms in state-supported schools.  I am not sure that I would go as far as Richard Dawkins (2007) as to say that all forms of religious education are just excuses for child abuse.  Although I am not comfortable with many of these things, I don’t think I would want to close down private schools that taught what I (and others) regard as pseudo-science.  But there are good reasons for preferring regular science over pseudo-science, not the least being that the former works and the latter does not.  I want children taught the best that we have, not any odd idea because someone is sincere about it.  Put the matter this way.  In medical schools would you want equal time given over to Christian Science and the Jehovah’s Witnesses on blood transfusions and the anthroposophists on vaccinations?   I want children taught what works.  I certainly do not want children – or medical students – taught things that are positively false and potentially very harmful.  (I am leaving on one side constitutional questions.  In the USA, Creation Science cannot be taught in state schools because it violates the separation of Church and State as mandated by the First Ammendment.  Here I am trying to make a more general, philosophical argument, not win a court case.)

Fourth and finally, let me draw your attention to the fact that pseudo-science rarely comes without a philosophy attached (Ruse 2013).  It stands to reason in a way.  There has to be something driving people to go out into the wilderness beyond respectability.  In the case of anthroposophy, it is a vision of human nature, one bound up with astral forces as we develop and try to respond to the unseen.  It is deeply holistic, seeing the whole of nature including humans as part of one integrated whole.  This is all very much in the spirit of Romanticism seeing all as one.  Wordsworth expressed it well in his poem Tintern Abbey.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Ultimately of course it all goes back to Plato and his theory of forms, with the Good standing above and integrating all things.  Anthroposophists are not above suggesting that Rudolf Steiner is Plato reincarnated.  Since apparently we alternate sexes in our incarnations, one wonders who was the woman in the middle.  One presumes that the Virgin Mary was not an option.

In the case of Creation Science, obviously there is (what I would consider) the somewhat distorted version of Christianity that carries with it those values that lie near and dear to the hearts of American evangelicals (Ruse 2005).  To be candid, I doubt anyone has ever really worried about gaps in the fossil record.  But they do worry about abortion on demand and gay marriage and the abolition of the death penalty and (very much) feminism.  (They worry a lot less about divorce perhaps because the evangelical record in this respect is truly dreadful – undoubtedly in major part a function of people marrying far too young in order to enjoy the delights of connubial bliss and to avoid the snare of fornication.[i])

Tolerance

Now, I think that tolerance demands that one accept the views of others in this respect, meaning that they have a perfect right to hold them, although frankly I am not sure that the other side would reciprocate.  (I suspect that the value of letting others have their values is one of the values at issue here.)  But it doesn’t mean that I have to accept them in a quiescent sort of way or have no right to argue against them or to try politically to prevent their ideas and values prevailing.  I can do everything in my ability to block them – as indeed I personally have done for the past thirty years with respect to all forms of Creationism.

Democracy is a precious thing and there are always forces trying to prevent it or to circumscribe it – in our own society particularly, when you think of the grotesque gerrymandering that goes on when drawing up congressional districts or the absurd qualifications that are demanded before one is allowed to vote.  It is a nice balance between recognizing that democracy means that others can believe and do what one finds offensive – pretty silly, as I have said – and making sure that no one abuses that right to try to stop you holding ideas that they find offensive – pretty silly.  Remembering also that democracy does not mean that every idea deserves a level playing field.  We have the right and the obligation to judge ideas in the light of past experience and if they fail the test then they should be so judged.

None of this sounds very easy, but whoever said that the important things are easy?

[Mar 22, 2013] Study Finds Universe Is 100 Million Years Older Than Previously Thought 

This is a special message for evangelical rednecks ;-)
Slashdot

Posted by samzenpus
from the you-don't-look-a-day-over-13-billion dept.

skade88 writes "Reuters is reporting that scientists now say the universe is 100 million years older than previously thought after they took a closer look at leftover radiation from the Big Bang. This puts the age of the Universe at 13.8 billion years. The new findings are the direct results from analyzing data provided by the European Space Agency's Planck spacecraft.

The spacecraft is providing the most detailed look to date at the remnant microwave radiation that permeates the universe. 'It's as if we've gone from a standard television to a high-definition television. New and important details have become crystal clear,' Paul Hertz, NASA's director of astrophysics, told reporters on a conference call."

5 Shocking Ways the Christian Right Has Forced the Bible Into America's Schools

Jan 28, 2013 |  Alternet

Of all the Religious Right’s schemes, the constant promotion of Bible-based creationism in schools is one of its most nefarious.

Not only does replacing science with biblical literalism violate the separation of church and stat irst day they walk into freshman Biology 101.

In fact, a failure to understand evolution can make it harder for high school students to get into the best colleges. Try passing the Advanced Placement Biology exam when you know nothing of natural selection. A poor grounding in evolution can choke off entire career paths for young people.

Despite these high stakes, some states, school districts and individual teachers insist on doing students a disservice by promoting scientific illiteracy.

Anyone who thinks this issue died with the Scopes trial in 1925 hasn’t been keeping up. Creationists have continued to spread ignorance and attempt to infiltrate public education. Examples are legion, but here are five prominent (and outrageous) attempts by creationists to disrupt the education of America’s budding scholars.

1. Texas: In one of the creationists’ sneakiest moves to date, in 2007 a phalanx of anti-science fundamentalist groups swamped the Texas legislature and lobbied for a law allowing elective courses “about” the Bible in public schools.

At first glance, it sounded like it might work. The courses were supposed to be objective and not promote any one version of faith over others. But Texas lawmakers refused to allocate any money for teacher training, leaving the matter in the hands of local school districts.

You can guess what happened – in most districts, no training was offered. About 60 public school districts and charter schools adopted the classes, and many of them ended up with instruction that had the flavor of fundamentalist Sunday School lessons.

A recent report by the Texas Freedom Network authored by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Dallas’ Southern Methodist University, found that many schools are teaching that the Earth is 6,000 years old, a key concept of creationism. Chancey found two districts that went so far as to teach that modern racial diversity can be traced back to Noah’s sons, another creationist standby. Another district used videos from YouTube arguing that people’s lifespans began to drop “due to major environmental changes brought about by [Noah’s] flood.”

Most of the Bible courses, Chancey reported, were taught from a default conservative Protestant perspective. Most claimed that the Bible is literally true, and some even included anti-Jewish bias.

Observed Chancey, “Courts have repeatedly ruled that advocating creation science in public school science courses is unconstitutional….Nonetheless, several courses incorporate pseudoscientific material, presenting inaccurate information to their students and exposing their districts to the risk of litigation.”

2. Louisiana: In the early 1980s, Louisiana legislators decided to pass a law mandating that when evolution was taught in public schools, “creation science” must be as well. Scientists, educators and advocates of church-state separation were appalled and blasted the so-called “balanced treatment” measure, but lawmakers, led by state Sen. Bill Keith, plowed ahead. The bill was soon law.

Advocates of the new law didn’t even bother to disguise their religious motivations. Keith asserted that evolution is a tenet of “secular humanism, theological liberalism and atheism.” Paul Ellwanger, a creationist who helped author the bill, said he viewed the struggle as “one between God and anti-God forces.”

A legal challenge was promptly filed, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Fundamentalist religious groups bombarded the high court with legal briefs urging the justices to uphold the law, arguing that it was merely an attempt to promote “academic freedom” and present both sides of a controversial issue.

But the justices weren’t fooled. In a 7-2 ruling in  Edwards v. Aguillard, the court struck down the law. Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan observed, “Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”

Unfortunately, Louisiana learned little from the experience, and legislators there have continued to pass bills designed to eviscerate the teaching of evolution. Most recently, the legislature in 2008 approved a “Science Education Act” that has little to do with actual science or useful education. The law allows teachers to use “supplemental” materials – code for creationist propaganda – in science classes.

Zack Kopplin, a former high school student in Baton Rouge who now attends Rice University, put it well during a 2011 pro-science rally: “Louisiana,” he said, “is addicted to creationism.” 

... ... ...

Economist's View

From a review of Bob Woodward's new book at the Washington Post:   

But his failure to consistently work his will on Congress surely has less to do with his individual failings, as Woodward suggests, than with larger forces, chief among them the radicalization of the GOP — a party that actually seems to believe its depiction of a moderate, pragmatic president as some kind of wild-eyed collectivist, a party whose members, in their loathing for government, were willing to risk, in some cases to welcome, the economic armageddon of a debt default as an opportunity, a catharsis, a shock to the body politic. In Woodward’s book, “the caucus” and the tea party are little more than bit players, but for Obama — and no less for Boehner — their rigidity is the central, unalterable fact of political life. The manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling was their proud creation, and their zealotry has extended it right to the edge of the cliff. Congress is one thing — how does a man work his will on a crusade?

It's important to view Woodward's statements through a "Very Serious" lens that assumes a particular kind of grand bargain -- one that is tough on social programs for one thing -- is highly desirable. His idea of good and bad outcomes - e.g. whether standing up for certain principles in a negotiation is honorable or obstructionist - must be seen in this light.

[Sep 08, 2012] Meet Barack Obama 

Barack Obama is a cynical opportunist who serves the interests of wealth and privilege and whose policies more effectively promote those interests than Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan could ever hope to.

Counterpunch

Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential pick, Paul Ryan, as with himself, is an uninformed opportunist who was born into wealth and privilege and whose proposed policies aim to perpetuate that privilege at the expense of the rest of the population with whom he nominally shares a national identity. Barack Obama is a cynical opportunist who serves the interests of wealth and privilege and whose policies more effectively promote those interests than Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan could ever hope to.

Those circling the wagons to get Mr. Obama re-elected should spend a bit of time getting to know their guy.

... ... ...

In his effort to save particular culpable bankers while leaving the banking system corrupt, fragile, predatory and dysfunctional, Mr. Obama spared the victims of banker malfeasance no inconvenience, misdirection, unnecessary effort or cost. As part of the bank ‘bailouts’ Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner developed an entire program (HAMP– Home Affordable Modification Program) (link) to intentionally dupe hundreds of thousands of homeowners facing foreclosure into wasting a year or more of their lives ‘negotiating’ with banks that had no intention of modifying mortgages. The result was to inflict economic, legal and moral harm onto already distressed citizens solely to benefit the banks. That Mr. Geithner could have accomplished the same goal by fiat without torturing the already victimized citizenry illustrates what utter contempt he and Mr. Obama have for the American people.

... ... ...

After several decades of the Washington political establishment opportunistically trotting out the ‘budget deficit’ canard in the lull between launching expensive wars for the benefit of their corporate benefactors, creating expensive giveaways to connected industries (Pharma) and enacting exorbitant tax cuts for the ascendant plutocracy, Barack Obama upped the ante by laying Social Security and Medicare on the table to be sacrificed without even the pretense of having been forced to do so. The only likely reason why he didn’t beat Paul Ryan to the punch in trying to privatize Social Security, as Bill Clinton had wanted to do, is that the matter polled poorly following George W. Bush’s bungling of the matter.

... ... ...

In every dimension as president Barack Obama has proven himself a loyal servant of the global ruling class—bankers, corporate CEOs and oil and gas industry executives, against the rest of humanity. And through his faux-populist rhetoric and crude-materialist presence (black Democrat) he has been able to promote ruling class interests more effectively than conspicuous aristocrats like Mitt Romney could hope to. More to the point, as a trained technocrat, Mr. Obama can avoid the overreach of crude ideologues like Paul Ryan by knowing exactly who his benefactors are. (Mr. Ryan would hit a brick wall thirty seconds into trying to cut the government programs that the ruling class feeds off of. Mr. Obama will stick to de-funding only those who lack social power).

Finally, my condolences to Mr. Obama’s supporters on the coming disappointments should he be re-elected. Sure Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would be ‘worse.’ But should Mr. Romney win there would be less delusion around whose interests any president will serve. The ruling class declared war on the rest of us forty years ago. Mitt Romney clearly represents the ruling class. Mr. Obama does the same with less evident intent.

[Sep 08, 2012] Wall Street’s War on the Cities by Michael Hudson

Counterpunch

... Wall Street strategists view this state and local budget squeeze as a godsend. As Rahm Emanuel has put matters, a crisis is too good an opportunity to waste – and the fiscal crisis gives creditors financial leverage to push through anti-labor policies and privatization grabs. The ground is being prepared for a neoliberal “cure”: cutting back pensions and health care, defaulting on pension promises to labor, and selling off the public sector, letting the new proprietors to put up tollbooths on everything from roads to schools. The new term of the moment is “rent extraction.”

[Sep 08, 2012] Dumb and dumber by John Feffer

Sep 7, 2012 | Asia Times

After eight years of cowboy globalism under George W Bush, Americans went for the "smart power" pledged by Barack Obama - resurrecting US prestige overseas, using diplomacy first and violence as a last resort. That was the promise; the reality has been different, with enemies even angrier and friends becoming foes.

Come November, Americans must vote again - an unenviable choice between Obama's "dumb power" and Mitt Romney's alternative.

(Used with permission TomDispatch.)
 

[Aug 28, 2012]Economists for Romney – A Closer Look  by  Pavlina Tcherneva

August 27, 2012 | naked capitalism

Yves here. Paul Krugman already pounced on a major, and disturbing, deception on behalf of the Romney economics team: that Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw, and John Taylor (along with Kevin Hassett) published a white paper which grossly misrepresented the research of multiple economists. In other words, they are willing to flat out lie to create the impression their policies ideas have wide-spread support among economists.

Pavlina Tcherneva makes separate observations about the key advisors in Romney’s camp and how well their ideas have fared in our depression-in-the-making.

She also makes sure to include Gary Becker, and with good reason. Becker was among the speakers at a keynote session at the Milken Conference in 2008 which I attended. It was the first time I’d seen toads hop out of someone’s mouth when speaking.

By Pavlina Tcherneva, Assistant Professor of Economics at Franklin and Marshall College, Research Scholar at The Levy Economics Institute, and Senior Research Associate at the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability. Cross posted from New Economic Perspectives

Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney boasts support from the scientific community for his supply-side trickle-down economic proposal. It is outlined here, along with the list of economists endorsing the plan.

Several Nobel Prize winners grace the top of the list. Here is a quick look at some of these luminaries and their contributions to some of the most pressing problems of our time.

UNEMPLOYMENT: Robert Lucas

Perhaps no one bears more responsibility for the general apathy among mainstream economists towards the problem of unemployment than Robert Lucas. He is the economist who argued that there was no point in distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary unemployment because agents were ‘perfectly rational’ and the jobless essentially ‘chose’ their condition (1978, 242). (Yes, according to Lucas, even during the Great Depression, 25% of the working population opted for leisure rather than work!) This is not some minor claim, but a signature argument by Lucas and the entire New Classical School of economic thought to which he belongs. This is the school whose second core assumption — that of ‘continuous market clearing’ — together with the ‘rational expectations hypothesis’ has been used to render the condition of involuntary unemployment a virtual impossibility.

Why spend any effort looking for solutions to a problem which has been assumed away?

THE DOWNTURN: Edward Prescott

Edward Prescott is a prominent member of the Real Business Cycle School (a spin-off of the New Classical School), which also embraces the assumptions of continuous market clearing and rational expectations. Prescott and his colleague Kydland shared the Nobel Prize for “their contributions to dynamic macroeconomics”. They are the brainpower behind the most dominant mainstream macroeconomic model—the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium model. Yes, this is the same model that failed to predict the latest crisis and prompted the Queen of England to ask “Why didn’t anyone see it coming?” This same DSGE model has no money, no default, no financial institutions, no debt… in other words, nothing of interest to those who are interested in the real world. Prescott too subscribes to the idea that the unemployed are simply substituting leisure for work during business cycles and that the government shouldn’t do anything about it. Indeed, all that the government safety-nets do is introduce moral hazard (as in, unemployment insurance removes the incentive to look for work). Prescott further maintains that if flood protection were not offered, rational agents would stop living in flood- and hurricane-prone regions.

Surely those troublesome food stamps that go to 47 million Americans disincentivize them from foraging.

THE EUROPEAN MONETARY UNION: Robert Mundell

Robert Mundell is the father of the signature theory (Optimal Currency Areas) that rationalized the design of the European Monetary Union. Under the OCA model, there is no reason for currencies to be connected to nation states. Indeed Mundell claimed that single currency areas would increase economic performance and efficiency. We all know how well this experiment turned out and even the mainstream today recognizes the need for nation states to control their own currencies for the purposes of policy making. The best analysis of the OCA model can be found in Charles Goodhart’s seminal article “The two concepts of money: implications for the analysis of optimal currency areas”, which is a required reading for anyone interested in MMT or wanting to understand why Europe is in such a mess.

FINANCIAL INSTABILITY: Myron Scholes

Myron Scholes (along with his collaborator Robert Merton) shared the Nobel for “developing a new method for valuing derivatives”. This method gave birth to the trading model used by Long Term Capital Management in the 90s. Remember LTCM? The hedge fund that almost brought the financial system to its knees in 1998 were it not for the Fed-orchestrated bailout. 10 years later derivatives trading managed to finish the job and produce a far bigger crisis. Scholes himself was accused by LTCH vs. US of using illegal tax shelters to hide profits from the hedge fund.

No, these are not some obscure economists pushing some obscure ideas. These are the men whose work has defined much of the mainstream economics profession and provided the ‘rationale’ for supply-side, trickle-down economic policy.

These are men whose ideas have stood the test of time and have failed. What can we expect from the economic plan of a man who has their support?

============

A bonus: Gary Becker

(Though Becker’s contributions do not bear direct relevance to the current crisis, it is emblematic of the warped logic used by many mainstream economists.)

Gary Becker is the economist who developed a pricing model for kidneys and other human organs. Since efficient markets solve all problems—economic or social—monetizing organ donation, in this economist’s view, makes perfect sense. He is better known for his theory on human capital investment. One extension of this work deals with the question of child-rearing. According to Becker, parents choose to have children because they fear that their retirement portfolios are inadequate to support them in their old age…hence, the kids. Some parents opt to have a few “high-quality kids”, while others – many “low quality kids”, depending on the family’s time preference. I am not joking and these are not my words; they are his. This theory has given birth to the “rotten-kid theorem”, which says that because of these financial incentives, parents are “altruistic” even (even?!) towards their spoiled-rotten and selfish kids, because they are essentially trying to maximize their own return. In sum, according to Becker, all social, economic, environmental, health, and other problems can be solved if all human activity is monetized and financial incentives are ‘properly aligned’.

(As I suspect every other rational parent has done, I too have been crunching numbers since I had my daughter 2 months ago. Would she yield the return I’m expecting of her or should I increase my contributions to my retirement portfolio? Ah, where is that perfect information when you need it!?)

Read more at http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2012/08/pavlina-tcherneva-economists-for-romney-a-closer-look.html#uswAo5kRl8jpImHA.99

[Aug 25, 2012] Niall Ferguson and the Rage Against the Thought-Leader Machine by  Justin Fox

Harvard Business Review

Harvard historian Niall Ferguson ran into an online buzzsaw this week. He says the "liberal blogosphere" was out to do him in, and that was part of it. But there's something bigger at work: a groundswell of resentment for and frustration with the "thought leaders" who craft our conventional wisdom, get paid big speaking fees for it, yet often behave in ways that don't accord with this status. First Jonah Lehrer, then Fareed Zakaria, now this — and surely there will be more such brouhahas to come. It may be that this groundswell is driven entirely by frustrated would-be speechmaking thought leaders. But I think it's more than that (then again, as a would-be speechmaking thought leader, I would).

What got Ferguson — whom I know, although not well, and like — in trouble was his Newsweek cover story "Hit the Road, Barack." The article looks like something a smart, busy guy who really likes Paul Ryan, kind of dislikes the President, and loves to tweak the American liberal establishment — but hasn't had much time to delve into the issues lately — might throw off in a couple of days while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. It's not good, but it's not exactly an abomination, either.

So why the firestorm of criticism? A lot of it had to do with one little passage about the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare:
 

The president pledged that health-care reform would not add a cent to the deficit. But the CBO and the Joint Committee on Taxation now estimate that the insurance-coverage provisions of the ACA will have a net cost of close to $1.2 trillion over the 2012-22 period.

 

What Ferguson left out is that the Congressional Budget Office also said that other provisions of the law (reductions in Medicare spending and increases in taxes) will more than make up for that cost, resulting in a net reduction in the deficit. His wording was clearly misleading: Obama's "health-care reform" included both the insurance-coverage provisions and the other provisions. When Princeton economist and frequent Ferguson sparring partner Paul Krugman pointed this out, Ferguson could have easily said something like Oops, I worded that poorly. But the point stands that increasing health coverage is going to cost a lot. Instead, he doubled down and argued that because he'd written "insurance-cost provisions" he'd been entirely correct. Along the way, he again selectively quoted from the CBO in a way that completely misrepresented the meaning of the passage he cited. Which was when the piling on really began.

Some of it was clearly partisan: I have tried and failed to imagine a situation where a sloppy pro-Obama or anti-Romney screed by a Harvard professor would have caused the Atlantic's James Fallows to declare, "As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize." But it was also driven by people like Business Insider's Joe Weisenthal, Politico's Dylan Byers, and Slate's Dave Weigel who had no political axe to grind but were flabbergasted at Ferguson's sheer shamelessness. These are all leading members of a rising digital media elite, closely connected via social media, who are pretty sure their peers and readers would never let them get away with nonsense like that.

Which is where my thought leader idea comes in. Ferguson is a great financial historian — his history of the Rothschild family is brilliant. In recent years he's become more of a generalist, and has focused more on current events. That's not a bad thing — I'm all for experts broadening their reach and sharing their knowledge. But Ferguson has been so good at it, and can express himself so charmingly, and handsomely, and swashbucklingly, that some people are willing to pay him to yammer on about pretty much anything. Tina Brown of Newsweek/The Daily Beast is one of those people, but far more important, as Stephen Marche pointed out on Esquire.com, are the conference organizers who are pay Ferguson $50,000 to $75,000 to entertain and edify a hotel ballroom full of business types about "Chimerica" or "the six killer apps of Western civilization."

That's the link with Lehrer and Zakaria, who are (or probably were, in Lehrer's case) big on the speaking circuit as well. Zakaria is a hugely accomplished thinker and writer (go back and read his breathtakingly good October 2001 Newsweek cover story "Why Do They Hate Us?" for a sample) who seems to have stretched himself too thin. Lehrer is a smart young upstart — his third book, Imagine: The Art and Science of Creativity, had been tearing up the bestseller lists before scandal hit — who seems to have made good storytelling a higher priority than the truth. That progression may tell a lot. The path to lucrative thought-leaderdom blazed over the past couple of decades was to establish yourself with dense, serious work (or a big, important job) and then move on to catch-phrase manufacturing (I spent a few weeks following Tom Friedman around in 2005, and learned that he had made this transition very deliberately). Nowadays ambitious young people looking to break into the circuit often just aim straight for the catch-phrases. Speakers bureaus need pithy sales pitches, not complex erudition — and while speaking fees might be spare change for Mitt Romney, for journalists and academics they often represent their only real shot at a top-tax-bracket income.

The result is an intellectual environment that seems to increasingly reward the superficial, and keeps rewarding those who make it into the magic circle of top-flight speakers even if they don't have anything new or interesting to say. Or at least: a part of the intellectual environment is like that. There's also a lively, seemingly much more meritocratic intellectual scene in the blogosphere and on Twitter. "The growth of online venues," wrote blogger and international relations scholar Daniel W. Drezner in a journal article in 2008 "has stimulated rather than retarded the quality and diversity of public intellectuals."

Where things get combustible is when the two scenes collide — when speaker's-bureau pundits get called out online for misdeeds, errors, or just inanities. (For a bracingly nasty recent example of the latter, check out think tanker Evgeny Morozov's recent New Republic evisceration of the TED ethos.) I don't know if this marks a changing of the guard, an uprising, or just a bunch of Twitter chatter that we should all ignore and get back to work. But it's fair to say that our thought leaders have as a group done a disastrously poor job of leading our thoughts over the past decade, so some kind of shake up is in order. (I should credit futurist Eric Garland, who has been making this argument a lot lately.)

All of which means that if you're a high-profile thought leader like Niall Ferguson, or Fareed Zakaria, or Jonah Lehrer, watch out. What got you there may not keep you there.

Update: Dan Drezner has a great piece, posted about 20 minutes before this one, that explores the same topic.

Justin Fox is editorial director of the Harvard Business Review Group and author of The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street.

Robert Waldmann

You are very very very much too kind to Drezner. His post is fundamentally different from yours because it contains nothing along the lines of " Along the way, he again selectively quoted from the CBO in a way that completely misrepresented the meaning of the passage he cited. " Drezner not only ignores this fact but asserts that Brad DeLong ignored it too. Drezner claimed that DeLong discussed the possible revocation of Ferguson's tenure for being "tendentious"Justin Fox (his word).

In fact, DeLong only raised the possibility when Ferguson went on to commit gross intellectual fraud. Drezner libeled DeLong by grossly miss-representing what DeLong wrote (he must know what DeLong wrote as he discusses it).

I really don't think you should link to Drezner again. He has demonstrated an inability )really unwillingness( to distinguish the false and the tendentious. He seems to have no idea that historians consider accurate quotation of primary sources important. I don't see how anyone can imagine that Drezner has anything useful to contribute to any discussion. The same, of course, goes for Ferguson.

Bryan Simpson
Justin, I was lead here by someone who referred to your article as a rare mature and thoughtful look at Niall Ferguson's latest internet dust up. It is correct your write up of Ferguson is fair, but you are a wolf in sheep's clothing. You have cut Ferguson like no one I've read. You do everything short of putting thought leader in quotation marks, it's truly a step down for a serious thinker to be considered a thought leader in the context you have drawn out. I too have enjoyed some of Ferguson's histories but I can't say I now recognized the man who wrote them. That Ferguson no longer exists. He has joined the lazy pablum pushers the like of Thomas Friedman. The next famous "thought leader" to screw up better hope you aren't there to explain what happened. Well done.
Guest
You state "Ferguson is a great financial historian". Does this go all the way back to 2010? Ferguson on Bloomberg: "Well, that’s not really a part of the argument I made in the piece. The point I made in the piece was that the stimulus had a very short-term effect, which is very clear if you look , for example, at the Federal employment numbers there’s a huge spike in early 2010 and then it falls back down."

Krugman explains the spike is due to census hiring and then writes: "For what it’s worth, in this case I don’t think we’re looking at a blatant attempt to mislead; I suspect that we’re just looking at raw ignorance."

Justin Fox
Although intentionally misrepresenting source material, as Ferguson seems to have done in the article and definitely did in the subsequent exchange, belongs somewhere on the same scale as plagiarism, doesn't it? show more show less
5l5k2laa
In fact what Ferguson did is worse. Plagiarism does not intentionally mislead one's readers, contrary to what Ferguson has done. A clarification. Plagiarism does not intentionally mislead one's readers as to the substantive content of the writing although it does mislead as to the source of the writing. However, to most readers whether the statement is true or false is far more important than whose statement it is. show more show less
Aditya
They're both forms of intellectual fraud.

[Aug 14, 2012]   The Understanding Stupidity

This systematic distortion of information makes human societies characteristically self-deceptive, with people disposed to believe they are living up to their ideals, particularly when they are not. The existing schematic dissonance is usually subconscious, due to the misleading nature of words, so society stumbles smugly along while at odds with itself, its environment and its equally stupid neighbors. In fact, the only really effective control of development comes not from inside but from physical limitations (what cannot be done) and competition with other groups which are also out of touch with themselves.

In general, internal criticism is of limited value as a control mechanism for growth and development of a social system. There usually tend to be few, if any, effective critics within any organization. When not dismissed out of hand as a crank or an outsider, anyone with valid criticism is made an outsider, as ostracism is a common reward for honesty, accuracy and integrity. Thus, criticism without power is largely wasted, producing little but woe for the bewildered critic himself.

Perhaps there are so few effective critics because anyone with any brains at all quickly finds that most human organizations just are not set up for effective criticism. The basic working assumption is that everything is just fine. Outside criticism is deflected and internal feedback is supposed to be positive reinforcement from "Yes men" promoting their careers by corrupting the mighty. At best, criticism has a place on the fringe, where cranks and comics can be tolerated as amusing diversions.

The resistance of organizations to criticism is inherent in the human condition. Criticism is invariably disruptive, since group spirit, if nothing else, is disrupted when unrecognized problems are made explicit. Such disturbances are unwelcome to those in power. While a critic may think he is performing a service by calling attention to an obvious problem, he is often treated as if he caused it. Actually, critics should be considered society's early warning systems, sensing symptoms of problems before

[Aug 10, 2012] Religious Fundamentalism and the Art of Motorcycle Club Maintenance by Donald Cox

August 5, 2002  | Donald Cox

Unless you belong to a motorcycle club, you probably don't think they have much to do with your life or with the world at large. I'm going to try to convince you otherwise. The logic of motorcycle clubs (members don't like the word "gangs") applies to many spheres, sublime and nasty, from religion to academic pursuits to terrorism.

"Generically, then, here are two similarities between motorcycle clubs and academic clubs:
  • each screens out the less zealous
  • and each discourages members from mingling with outsiders"

I don't expect you to be convinced right away, especially in light of some of the clubs' practices. Consider the initiation rites of the Hells' Angels in their mid-60's ascendancy, as reported by Hunter Thompson in his famous biker ethnography, Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga:

Every Angel recruit comes to his initiation wearing a new pair of Levi's and a matching jacket with the sleeves cut off and a spotless emblem on the back. The ceremony varies from one chapter to another but the main feature is always the defiling of the initiate's new uniform. A bucket of dung and urine will be collected during the meeting, then poured on the newcomer's head in a solemn baptismal. Or he will take off his clothes and stand naked while the bucket of slop is poured over them and the others stomp it in. These are his 'originals,' to be worn every day until they rot. The Levi's are dipped in oil, then hung out to dry in the sun—or left under the motorcycle at night to absorb the crankcase drippings. When they become too ragged to be functional, they are worn over other, newer Levi's. Many of the jackets are so dirty that the colors are barely visible, but they aren't discarded until they literally fall apart. The condition of the originals is a sign of status. It takes a year or two before they get ripe enough to make a man feel he has really made the grade. [pp. 45-46]

Now, where were we? Oh yes, academic pursuits. At the end of the first year of my studies for a Ph.D. my 20 or so classmates and I were given two exams (the "cores") designed not so much to test academic skills but to weed out those lacking the maniacal endurance to study economics past the point of all reason. It worked—by the second year only a half dozen of us remained, and a couple more dropped out before finishing the Ph.D. I wouldn't say the cores were a bucket of slop, exactly, but they did seem to cross the line from pedagogy into hazing.

Maybe you're thinking that a closer analogy might have to do with the sartorial habits of bikers and academic economists. While economists tend to avoid the dung-caked look, they're not exactly snappy dressers, and their uniforms often seem no less rigid than those of bikers. But I think there is a subtler connection. Stinky clothes prevent a biker from consorting with the non-biker world; he can forget about being, for example, a part-time bank teller or Gap salesperson. A seemingly crazy tradition serves a rational purpose, by making it easier for members to concentrate on the world of motorcycles full time.

Likewise, academics are sometimes discouraged from working in the non-academic world. For example, in the upper echelons of academe, "outside" consulting—the term itself belies boundaries—garners little prestige for the free-lancer and, if anything, is often looked down upon by peers. Norms against consulting serve the same purpose as non-standard clothing by making it harder for the club members to stray from the fold.

Generically, then, here are two similarities between motorcycle clubs and academic clubs: each screens out the less zealous and each discourages members from mingling with outsiders.

This line of thinking comes from a theory proposed by economist Laurence Iannaccone, who tried to explain two puzzles connected with religious sects:

The sacrifices are wasteful, and, to outsiders at least, the stigmas often appear downright weird.

Iannaccone solved these puzzles by turning the logic of the economic theory of clubs on its head. Up to that point, economists focused mainly on how clubs might seek to prevent congestion by limiting membership, as a golf or tennis club might. But for some clubs the problem is not preventing congestion by keeping people out, but achieving critical mass by keeping people in. Small motorcycle clubs risk losing a barfight; tiny choirs are not very uplifting; poorly attended seminars are dull. The last item rationalizes the norms against consulting in academe. The less time my colleagues spend at law firms and corporate offices, the more time they have for lectures and seminars.

But it's not just about numbers; quality matters too: fellow bikers who fight hard, choir members who sing their hearts out, seminar participants who stay awake (and maybe even pay attention). Plus, many clubs—the Hell's Angels included—are beehives of redistribution and mutual insurance. In Thompson's words, "According to the code, there's no such thing as one Angel imposing on another." (p. 173) Iannaccone argues that the sacrifice demanded of prospective members helps screen out potential free-riders—those who might take advantage of the club's benefits without contributing their fair share. Hence the hazing, to weed out those less than fully committed. In the words of one Hell's Angel

"We're the one percenters, man—the one percent that don't fit and don't care....We've punched our way out of a hundred rumbles, stayed alive with our boots and our fists. We're royalty among motorcycle outlaws, baby." (Thompson, p. 4)

Nothing could be more different from a life of riding motorcycles than a life of studying the Talmud. Yet, as Eli Berman's recent study of Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews shows, the logic of Iannaccone's model applies with equal force to groups whose behavior it was originally formulated to explain—religious sects. The twin concerns of screening out free riders—who might be tempted to take advantage of redistribution—and attaining a critical mass—in order to make prayer and study more gratifying—each apply.

On redistribution: "No sick member is without visitors, and no single member is without an arranged match. Charity is ubiquitous, and interest-free loans abound, both in money and in kind..." (Berman, p. 911). On critical mass: "...praying is much more satisfying the more participants there are, especially when the tenth man arrives to make a prayer quorum (minyan)." (Berman, p. 921).

Berman also addresses a paradox: with worldwide income growth and technical progress, why the rise in religious fundamentalism and increased stringency of fundamentalist groups?

An easy way to resolve the paradox is to return to the example of bikers. If being a bank teller were the only alternative to participating in club activities, requiring members to wear dung-caked jackets effectively closes off that option. But what if technology brings about a new, more accessible alternative, such as, for example, telemarketing? The stigma from the jacket could prove useless for thwarting temptation; a biker might be able to work out of his home. The ante would have to be upped to something more radical (tongue piercing, maybe?).

Berman emphasizes that modern culture is an anathema to many religious sects, such as the Mennonites, the Amish, the radical Islam, in addition to Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Iannaccone's model explains why. TV, professional sports, Britney Spears, Ozzy Osbourne—all these compete for the attention of group members, especially younger ones.

About three weeks into my freshman year at a Catholic high school the "disciplinarian"—a humorless, black-robed cleric—showed up unannounced in the middle of a religion class to give an impromptu lecture on the evils of "Beatle-ism." Beatle-ism, apparently, had mainly to do with clothing: wide belts and pants without cuffs were deemed especially pernicious. (The rule on mandatory cuffs was quietly rescinded when it turned out that the local clothing store lacked the inventory to supply the entire student body.)

The root problem, of course, was that the Beatles were quite effective in competing for our attention. (To add insult to injury, whatever enthusiasm they may have had for saying the rosary or doing trigonometry, they kept well hidden.) But the proximate solution, as I think our disciplinarian reasoned, could well have to do with superficial trappings like clothing and hairstyles. If regulating them could prevent us from consorting with kids who espoused the Beatles' values, maybe we would knuckle down to work and pray harder.

I don't mean to sound churlish, and I don't bear a grudge against Brother Marcel, the disciplinarian. He was just following an economically rational policy. (Further, I'm eternally grateful to him and his prohibitions on long hair, which probably prevented me from joining a rock band and forgetting what little math I knew at the time.)

The clash between Brother Marcel and the Beatles is a microcosm of the perennial and increasingly pressing cat-and-mouse game between the Old Guard and the New Wave. The latter is the machinery—from places like Hollywood, New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts—that churns out new gadgets and ideas. I think some are great (new findings in neurobiology are a personal favorite) and some are crap (violent summer blockbuster movies). Accordingly, I feel ambivalent toward the Old Guard. If Brother Marcel were alive today he'd probably be laboring to stanch the flow of gameboys into my high school, something I'd be inclined to support. But I'd also be uncomfortable knowing that, as a member of the Old Guard, he occupies a proverbial slippery slope that can lead to coercive practices of, for example, the Taliban.

The New Wave is becoming cheaper and more accessible all the time. The Old Guard will respond by closing ranks ever so tightly. Where it all leads depends in part on the resolution of these mighty forces. Whether rising fundamentalism will persist in the face of the expanding reach of secular temptation also depends on those old economic mainstays, technology, tastes and incomes. Clearly the New Wave, with its focus groups and market surveys, pays attention to this. But as long as club participation remains voluntary, the Old Guard will have to pay attention as well.

I must confess I'm rooting for the New Wave. In hindsight, I would have preferred spending more time listening to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and less time studying the Baltimore Catechism. But it's a tricky call—all those re-runs of Gilligan's Island burned up a lot of time that would have been better spent on pre-calculus. My three-year-old daughter is starting to like Beatles and that's just fine with me. I do wonder, though, what ol' Marce would have had to say about Barney.


References:

Berman, Eli. "Sect, Subsidy and Sacrifice: An Economist's View of Ultra-Orthodox Jews." Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (August 2000): 905-953.

Buchanan, James M. "An Economic Theory of Clubs." Economica 32 (February 1965): 1-14.

Iannaccone, Laurence R. "Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free-riding in Cults, Communes, and Other Collectives." Journal of Political Economy 100 (April 1992): 271-291.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. New York: Ballentine Books, 1966.
 


* Donald Cox is Professor of Economics at Boston College. His email address is donald.cox@bc.edu.

[Jul 02, 2012] 'Science' without Falsification

Economist's View

Bryan Caplan is tired of being sneered at by "high-status academic economists":

The Curious Ethos of the Academic/Appointee, by Bryan Caplan: High-status academic economists often look down on economists who engage in blogging and punditry. Their view: If you can't "definitively prove" your claims, you should remain silent.

At the same time, though, high-status academic economists often receive top political appointments. Part of their job is to stand behind the administration's party line. They don't merely make claims they can't definitively prove; to keep their positions, appointees have to make claims they don't even believe! Yet high-status academic economists are proud to accept these jobs - and their colleagues admire them for doing so. ...

Noah Smith has something to say about "definitive proof":

"Science" without falsification is no science, by Noah Smith: Simon Wren-Lewis notes that although plenty of new macroeconomics has been added in response to the recent crisis/depression, nothing has been thrown out...

Four years after a huge deflationary shock with no apparent shock to technology, asset-pricing papers and labor search papers and international finance papers and even some business-cycle papers continue to use models in which business cycles are driven by technology shocks. No theory seems to have been thrown out. And these are young economists writing these papers, so it's not a generational effect. ...

If smart people don't agree, it may because they are waiting for new evidence or because they don't understand each other's math. But if enough time passes and people are still having the same arguments they had a hundred years ago - as is exactly the case in macro today - then we have to conclude that very little is being accomplished in the field. The creation of new theories does not represent scientific progress until it is matched by the rejection of failed alternative theories.

The root problem here is that macroeconomics seems to have no commonly agreed-upon criteria for falsification of hypotheses. Time-series data - in other words, watching history go by and trying to pick out recurring patterns - does not seem to be persuasive enough to kill any existing theory. Nobody seems to believe in cross-country regressions. And there are basically no macro experiments. ...

So as things stand, macro is mostly a "science" without falsification. In other words, it is barely a science at all. Microeconomists know this. The educated public knows this. And that is why the prestige of the macro field is falling. The solution is for macroeconomists to A) admit their ignorance more often (see this Mankiw article and this Cochrane article for good examples of how to do this), and B) search for better ways to falsify macro theories in a convincing way.

[Jun 30, 2012] Neocon Like Me: How I Spent A Year In Iraq Teaching With The Bush-Cheney Crazies By John Dolan

October 11, 2010 | www.exiledonline.com

The hero of this story is the $100 bill — or rather, the wad of $100 bills. My first meeting with those lovely $100 bills came at the end of my interview for a job teaching English at the American University of Iraq Sulaimaniya (AUIS). At the end of the interview, the Chancellor, Joshua Mitchell asked me what my travel expenses had been and pulled out a wad of $100 bills. He peeled off 11 of them — the cost of my ticket — and slapped them down on the table, snarling, “There, that’s how I do business!”

It certainly wasn’t the way most American academics do business. Most Americans are horrified by the sight of large amounts of cash, and American academics, an even more squeamish lot than most, would never have slapped that much money down on a table without asking for a receipt or any other formality. I was impressed; there’s something appealing about raw gangsterism popping up when you expected overcautious pedantry — especially when that raw gangsterism is giving you cash.

Any scruples I might have had about joining the occupation vanished with the last of our cash. My wife Katherine and I had been truly poor in the preceding three years — homeless, begging at food banks, the whole deal. I even published some helpful hints in AlterNet for those experiencing real poverty for the first time.

We went to Iraq to make money, not because we believed the neocon talk about training Iraq’s future leaders in the great ideals of the West.

And once we got to know our colleagues at AUIS, we found that nearly all the faculty was there for the same reason. Oh, they knew the talking points — democracy, Great Books, transforming an authoritarian culture — but they were in Iraq to make money. Well, to make money and to drink. In fact, when the talk got boozy, as it almost always did at faculty gatherings, the nonsense about bringing democracy disappeared and people started talking openly about SUVs and houses in the country.

AUIS bloomed in the Northern Iraqi desert, a very artificial growth sustained hydroponically with US tax dollars. One night, at a very boozy faculty party, some veteran AUIS teachers told us the secret story of how the place was created. They claimed that AUIS was born when John Agresto, a right-wing academic and vassal of the Cheney clan, drove over the Turkish border with $500,000 cash taped to his body. There was something grotesque about this legend, because Agresto is a notably fat man, and once you’d heard the legend of his cash-strapped trip across the border, you couldn’t help imagining him bulging with cash on top of his other bulges, like a wombat infested with botfly larvae.

John Agresto: From disgraced Lynne Cheney lapdog to diabetic cash mule, you’ve come a long way, baby!

Bizarre as that story sounds, it’s probably true. Stranger things, involving much bigger stashes of tax money, have happened throughout the US occupation of Iraq — and Agresto certainly had the political connections to score that kind of cash. In the early stages of the US occupation after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Agresto was in charge of “reforming” the Iraqi education system on good Republican principles. To his credit, he wrote a reasonably honest book about the experience called Mugged by Reality. Unfortunately, the mugging didn’t take; Agresto has gone back to his right-wing roots, avoiding that disrespectful thug, Reality, as much as possible.

Agresto has a very typical right-wing biography, steeped in resentment and nourishing long, slow, vengeful designs on the academic profession which had humiliated him. He was a Reagan appointee to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the mid-1980s, joining his patron, Bill Bennett, in the project to de-fund the Left. But when he was nominated as Deputy head, a job that required congressional confirmation, Agresto was bitterly humiliated. He was criticized as a “mediocre political appointment” by the American Studies Association, with a dozen academic organizations joining up to issue a statement deploring his “decidedly partisan reputation.” There were also raised evebrows at the fact that a witness who testified for Agresto at his confirmation hearings had recently been given a large grant at Agresto’s behest. After these bruising revelations, his nomination was dropped.

Humiliation was the theme of all Agresto’s memories of venturing into the wider world, beyond the tiny enclave of neocon academics. Even his ideological allies seemed to hurt him; he once described Lynne Cheney, his boss at the NEH, as “gruff and manly,” then repeated with real hatred in his voice, “Gruff…she was gruff.”

All that bitterness, and all those wads of taxpayer cash, ended up in the creation of AUIS. It was planned, as we new faculty were told, as a three-campus system, with branches in Baghdad and Southern Iraq. But Reality mugged that plan savagely; any attempt to stroll the groves of academe in any part of Iraq other than the Kurdish far north would have been interrupted with a lesson in practical physics from an IED.

Agresto took that money to Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdish zone of Northern Iraq, and set up AUIS, with himself in charge. He apparently chose Kurdistan for the simple reason that Baghdad, the natural place to put an American university in Iraq, was already too dangerous for Americans.

So AUIS was sited in Sulaimaniya, a quiet Kurdish town near the Iranian border with a long reputation of separatism towards the rest of Iraq, especially Arab Iraq. Saddam recognized Sulaimaniya’s tradition of fierce independence, once saying that “the head of the serpent lies in Sulaimaniya.”

“Suli,” as we expats called it, is a quiet, dusty town. When you fly into the Suli airport, the city seems almost invisible, because the favorite building material is concrete, and the beige and tan blocky houses blend perfectly with the dry brown hills. It’s hot in the summer and cold and damp in the winter and there’s very little to do. One of my colleagues described living there as “sensory deprivation.”

I arrived, with a dozen other new hires, in September 2009. We flew in on the same plane and were taken to our hotels on the same bus. Most of us were pretty flinchyll at first, wincing at every loud noise.But we soon learned there was nothing to fear from terrorists or even street hawkers. The Pesh Merga, the Kurdish militia who run security, are extremely effective, and the Kurds themselves are a polite, phlegmatic people.We soon realized the only danger in Suli was crossing the street. Everybody who’s anybody in Suli has an SUV — Kia Sportages for the middle class, Toyota Landcruisers for the rich — and very few locals know how to drive. But there is no violence against foreigners, as far as I know. We learned to go back to sleep after hearing bursts of AK fire, the established manner of celebrating a wedding or an election or just the fact that it’s Friday night. The only time I really flinched, once we were settled in, was when a bolt of lightning detonated directly above our hotel in the middle of the night. And even then, though I assumed it was a bomb, I wasn’t worried for our safety; my first thought was, “Agh, they’ll send us home and I won’t get any more of that money.”

In fact, I want to say clearly here how much I like and admire the people of Suli, my students in particular. They were a wonderful change from the timid, bland kids I’ve encountered in my recent North American teaching experiences. Most of the students at AUIS could name relatives tortured or killed by Saddam, or in the vicious Kurdish civil war of the 1990s, and nearly all of them were studying in an alien language they’d had little chance to learn properly. Yet they were smart, funny and without self-pity.

It was my fellow Americans who were the problem. And I was not alone in that opinion. I once asked a colleague at AUIS if she had any trouble getting respect from male Kurdish students. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Absolutely not. Are you kidding? The problem around here isn’t the students, it’s the assholes in the Main Building.”

The Main Building dominated the campus. In fact, the campus was divided in two like an ante-bellum plantation: there was the Main Building and the cabins. The cabins were cheap, prefabricated white metal shacks, shimmering in the bright sunlight, laid out like an army camp inside a square of blast walls. All the actual teaching, and all the teachers’ offices, were in the cabins. The Main Building, a big stone Soviet-style edifice, was reserved for the administrators’ vast offices.

American taxpayer dollars at work: Sure there’s no money for Social Security or Medicare or health insurance, but hey, look on the bright side: Tens of millions of American dollars produced this gorgeous scene!

That was the real campus. It wasn’t the one we’d seen online. That was the first shock of our arrival: finding out that the huge, luxurious campus on the AUIS website — the one you could fly around on a “virtual tour” that swooped along tiled walkways connecting grand buildings labeled “Presidential Building” and “Student Housing” — didn’t exist.

Oh, there’s a construction site, sitting on a dry hillside just out of town. And for years, AUIS shamelessly showed a “virtual video” of that site as it’s supposed to look, if and when it’s ever finished, as if it already were the campus. It may never be finished; already the university hired and finally fired a local construction firm which missed every deadline it was set. A Turkish company has the contract now, adding to the Turks’ domination of all business in Iraqi Kurdistan.

When anyone at AUIS dared to suggest that it wasn’t very honest to keep up the “virtual tour” fiction, Mitchell and Agresto had a stock response: “We’re a startup operation!” It reminded me of a stand-up comic’s line: “I try to remain new on the job as long as possible.”

One reason we accepted shocks like the nonexistent campus so docilely was that, when our minders met us at the Suli airport, they gave us a nice little packet containing a cellphone and $5000 cash “to help [us] settle in.”

Next day, they took us to the real campus and assigned us to one of the white cabins. We soon discovered that these cabins were damn near fictions themselves. They were so shoddily built that the door handles came off nearly every one of them at some point in my year at AUIS. Mine decided to fall off at the worst possible moment, after a morning of grading essays with the help of way too much coffee, just when my aging bladder decided it had had enough. I walked quickly to the door and — clunk. The door handle had become a souvenir, a key chain.

The shoddiness of the cabins came in handy at that point, because all I had to do was bang on the wall we shared with professors in the other half of the cabin, and one of my colleagues obligingly came over and opened the door from the outside. He knew what that banging on the wall meant; the same thing had happened to him a week earlier. It all made for a kind of cheerful roughing-it camaraderie, but it also underlined the strange sense of falseness, that you were living and teaching in a stage set.

All the claims AUIS made had the same stagey, silly feel, a boastful absurdity typical of the US in Iraq. The claims made for our mission were ridiculous; we were supposed to be transforming Iraq’s culture, teaching its future leaders a new and democratic way of thinking. But the university had only 200-odd students, and was straining to accommodate that number. It was hard to see how a group this size would transform a country of more than 26 million people.

And when I taught my first classes, I learned that those few students were woefully unprepared for university courses in English. We’d been told — another lie, of course — that the university’s ESL program produced fluent speakers and writers of English. That was a joke. Had I graded my students at the same level as in an American university — another one of our official fictions — at least two-thirds of them would have failed. A better man would no doubt have done the principled thing; I wanted those $100 bills and simply handed out a lot of generous C’s and B-’s.

Total fabrication; that’s what it all seems like now. We were supposed to be bridging the great ethnic divides of Iraq, but in that first semester, I taught a Composition course that consisted of what I thought of as a “Wall of Kurds” and a “Wall of Arabs.” The class was almost entirely male, and had the feel of a gang fight in hibernation. On one side of the room was the Wall of Kurds, a half dozen tough-looking, rural Kurdish students who spoke very little English; and on the other, a half-dozen much more urbane but much wimpier Arab students from Baghdad who wore a permanent flinch. The Arabs spoke and wrote much better English, the beneficiaries of Saddam’s preferential treatment of Baghdad, and the Kurds resented every sentence their erstwhile tormentors got right.

Both groups regarded me as an ephemeral inconvenience — a real surprise for me, because Agresto had assured me in the job interview that we were the biggest thing in these kids’ lives, the transformative yeast in the Iraqi loaf. At AUIS, he had told me (and every other new teacher), we’d see the total dedication to learning that we had longed for, and missed, in American students.

It never appeared. What I saw was several hundred lively, intelligent adolescents who were tremendously excited about living away from home, talking to members of the opposite sex, and trying on new identities. Classic adolescent stuff. There were times, in good weather, when the panorama of fevered social cliques occupying their few square meters of turf on the steps of the Main Building made the place look like a teen movie or a live-action Archie comic — all those family-ridden kids, burdened with having to be somebody’s son or daughter, brother or cousin, all their lives, suddenly allowed to be characters out of Heathers or Clueless.

There was an even bigger problem with fulfilling our messianic mission: the faculty. We were not an impressive bunch. There were good teachers at AUIS — I won’t name them, because praise from me might get them fired–but they survived by lying low; being bright and a good teacher made you suspect in a place where center stage was firmly occupied by a clique of loud, provincial rightwing nuts. In this sense, AUIS was an excellent microcosm of the American polity that had produced it: the best lacked all conviction, while the worst (with apologies to Yeats) raked in the cash and talked nonsense.

Successful Profs: Red-State Brown-Nosers with No Qualifikashuns

There was a clear, simple formula for success at AUIS: be a Southern white male Republican with a talent for flattery, an undistinguished academic record, and very little experience in university-level teaching.

Some of the faculty were so dismally unqualified and shameless that even our students, mostly reverent toward foreign authority-figures, saw through them.

The man Agresto hired to teach American History makes a perfect Exhibit A in any list of what’s wrong with AUIS. The first sign that he was not exactly committed to intellectual integrity was his choice of textbook for the course: an abominable book called America: The Last Best Hope, by William Bennett. Yes, THE William Bennett, Reagan’s Secretary of Education, the buffoon who sermonized on virtue until his gambling losses added up so high that they drowned out his pomposities, the man who once scolded a child in public for wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt.

Bennett’s title sums up the thesis of his textbook clearly: America is literally, simply, the last and best hope for the human species. Tough luck, China — or Burma, or Ecuador, or any other nation on the planet — because we R it, the alpha and omega. It’s a classic reactionary thesis: “I can’t imagine any nation ever being as great as America; therefore no nation ever will be.” Argument by lack of imagination — a favorite among opponents of evolution, biological or historical.

My students used to leave this book on their desks between classes, so I had a chance to flip through it. I expected it to be awful, but it was even worse than I could have guessed. Bennett gives sleazy imperial apologists a bad name. If you want to see this thing done well, try Hitchens or Paul Johnston, the British neo-imperialist historian from the Thatcher era. Bennett, who can’t write worth a damn and has never done original research in his life, is the worst of that very bad lot.

One student, the son of prominent Kurdish freedom-fighters and a genuine believer in things like intellectual freedom, saw through Bennett and had the courage to complain about the book. The teacher replied, “Well, this is a conservative university and it’s my job to give you the conservative perspective.” A simpler, more honest answer would have been: “Look, kid, I got this job by sucking up to John Agresto, who happens to be a close friend of William Bennett, so my hugely-inflated salary depends on feeding you this crap.” I still remember the disgusted shrug the student gave after telling me the story. He was learning about Western standards of intellectual integrity, all right — but not the way he was supposed to be.

Luckily for the students in American History, they spent most of their time watching war movies rather than reading Bennett’s Sunday School tales. Since I taught in the same cabin as our American History instructor, separated from his class by a flimsy metal wall, I got to listen to a whole semester’s worth of bad WW II films. Three long months of trying to teach my students to use the simple present, rather than the present progressive, in their essays, shouting to be heard over the corny dialogue coming through the wall: “I’m hit, Sarge! Uh…go on without me!”… usually followed by explosions that rocked the thin metal wall, as Sarge and friends took their revenge for the Gipper.

His one criterion was “bad language.” He wouldn’t show any movie with swearing in it (thus eliminating every decent war movie ever made). That scruple served him in place of any squeamishness about giving his teaching to the likes of William Bennett and John Wayne.

And for this, he was paid about $15,000 per month. The only reason I know he made that much is that he was a terrible braggart. We’d just been paid our first month’s salary, in cash, and as he walked with me among the cabins, he crowed, “Here I am walkin’ along with $15,000 cash in my pocket!”

He didn’t rate that sort of money because of his qualifications. As in, he didn’t got none. Not even a Ph.D. (though he claimed later to have picked one up from an online degree mill). He had no recent teaching experience, and no academic publications. Even by the lax standards of AUIS, the disparity between his rank and his qualifications became the object of speculation.

It was only through his habit of boasting that we found out the truth. As the winter break approached, he started strutting around telling everyone how he was going home to lobby Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, his home state, to send AUIS a big grant. He liked to boast while grooming himself in the stinking men’s room of the Cabins, which always stank like a chicken coop in hot weather. Standing at the urinal, he boasted to anyone trying to empty their bladders in his vicinity that his wife was one of the richest women in the state and a close friend of the Senator. He’d have no trouble getting an audience with Chambliss.

So that $15,000/mo. salary was only nominally for teaching; the man was actually a lobbyist with connections to the sleaziest and most lucrative crannies of the Southern rightwing elite. When I heard him boasting about his connections to Chambliss, I looked up the good senator and got another involuntary lesson in the utter falseness of the ideals holding up AUIS and its constituency. Saxby Chambliss was elected to the Senate in 2002 thanks to campaign ads showing the incumbent, Max Cleland, next to photos of Osama bin Laden. Even John McCain called the ads “reprehensible.” But that’s not the worst of it: Max Cleland, whose patriotism Chambliss impugned, lost three limbs to a grenade while fighting in Viet Nam. Saxby Chambliss never served, supposedly because he had a bad knee from playing high school football. The knee, of course, miraculously recovered once ol’ Saxby was past draft age.

Jack | October 12th, 2010 at 9:22 am

American academia is like some kind of sick disease that even though the body it’s parasited is in its death throes is spreading across the globe in the form of these Amerikun Biznez schools subsidaries of international educational corporations that are peddling their product all over the globe.

The unemployment department in the country where I’m living forced me to take a job with them. Some of the kids weren’t too bad but most of them were just to poor students to get into a National University but for some reason thought they were destined to be managers and give orders to people. I came to work drunk every day and made them watch American Psycho and learn the lyrics of GG Allin songs; especially I Kill Everything I Fuck.

[Jun 15, 2012] Michel Santi Science économique ou subjectivité économique

Google translation from French

The crisis has been triggered largely because contemporary economists Keynes had rejected in favor of Chicago School represented by Milton Friedman? Friedman believed that Keynes was wrong when he claimed that every crisis could be resolved by a gradual expansion of the money supply. So he set out the principle that tax policies - and thus government spending to stimulate the economy - were not necessary. For his part, Keynes was inspired by the Great Depression and blamed precisely the policy of contraction in money supply initiated by the Federal Reserve at the time who should have instead adopted a logical expansion. He was so convinced that recessions and depressions that were mainly caused by a fall in consumption.

The remedy advocated by Keynes was logically in a substantial reduction in interest rates allow a recovery in consumption. The cash would be generously provided by the State which would therefore a key role in activating its printing press in spite of deficits that are transient, however, because the stimulus would go to ... According to the Keynesians (as Paul Krugman), the onset of the crisis in 2007 would indeed be a textbook case since the implosion of the housing bubble has devalued the mortgage securities held by banks had immediately sunk the savings into recession draining the credit.

Macroeconomic lessons are certainly valid to study the Great Depression while leaning on the theory of business cycles. However, analyzing the current crisis (started in 2007) against these same criteria - despite their intellectual elegance - would result in dramatic commit the same mistakes. Economists have forgotten that the economy must first serve man and society because the world of contemporary economics is overrun with financial mathematics exercising a tyranny leaving no room for the social sciences! The economist said mischievously that Heilbroner had instilled a rigorous mathematics to economics before killing her! Unless this is the use which has been made which led to the present tendencies since the condemnation of the followers of Keynes in favor of Chicago does not mean progress.

This is the entire profession must now recognize that it was mistaken in its assessment of a highly complex system ... it still does not understand completely! Yet we have learned a lot. That our financial system is even more dangerous as some Bankers delight in pushing their off-balance sheet ratios and the risk that their mechanical explode at any moment. That even the States are obliged to cheat! We also know that this mismanagement is not a coincidence - or accident - but rather the result of a perverse pressure exerted continuously on a profession that is asked time and again the figure ... However, and this is a major lesson of this crisis, these behaviors to limit the criminal is only possible thanks to lax - or complicity? - The regulator and lawmakers believe that what is good for banks is necessarily good for the country.

From his perspective, Krugman is right to defend Keynes because it conforms well to the creed current among elites consisting spend lavishly in order to save a profession and a system without which themselves no longer exist! What Greenspan did after the collapse of technology stocks drastically reducing interest rates in 2001, Bernanke (his successor as head of the Fed) and saving the printing press began in 2007 on a scale more massive, a prelude to all types of risky behavior to come. In other words, the financial system of tomorrow will be even more dangerous than yesterday because this crisis tells first failure of any caste could not economists warn against the formation or against the devastating implosion of bubbles and suspicious behavior. It is true that the debate is mostly limited to crocodiles that frequent the same lake ...

Can "Science" of  economic  one day share the fate of anthropology or phrenology? In other words, this science of economics does become a science fossil vaguely respected for it has brought but completely outdated? Meanwhile, economists form a sort of caste of Brahmins or omens waving equations hyper sophisticated and always quick to give their opinions on political decisions. Their sole ambition: to be occult advisors to Princes mandarins. They live in fact backed by the powers that be, having their own system of recognition. While waiting for their inevitable fossilization.

[Jun 04, 2012] Krugman and Stiglitz: Our Most Widely Ignored Public Intellectuals

June 04, 2012 | Economist's View
Why don't those in power listen to Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman?:
Our Most Widely Ignored Public Intellectuals, by Robert Kuttner: ...As the most prestigious economic dissenters of this era, Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman form a category of two: astonishingly prescient, widely read, and largely ignored by those in power. ...

If these eminent thinkers are at the edge of economic orthodoxy, why are they marginalized within the corridors of power? One reason is that politics, not surprisingly, tends to get personal. Both Stiglitz and Krugman have decided to air their views in public rather than operating as discreet outside members of a kitchen cabinet... Stiglitz, even more than Krugman, has not been shy about criticizing Summers and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner by name, and the disfavor has been richly returned. Though Krugman’s column praises the Obama administration when the president gives Krugman half a reason to do so, the White House accurately perceives him and Stiglitz as off-message and part of the opposition.

More fundamental to their marginalization is the relative radicalism of what Krugman and Stiglitz are advocating in our conservative era, one in which even Democratic presidents have done little to reverse unconstrained finance, shrunken government, and deepening inequality. To embrace their wisdom would require something close to a political revolution. So two of our most lauded economists remain prophets with little power to change events. America would be a far healthier country if they broke through.

Jeffrey Stewart:

This is a relatively easy puzzle to solve. It absolutely doesn't matter to politicians and those funding their campaigns that Krugman and Stiglitz are 100% correct. If Krugman and Stiglitz were advocating policies that benefited the wealthy rather than the majority of the population, they would be listened to and have influential positions in any administration. There is a near complete capture of the state by capital. This means that only policies that directly benefit financial, industrial and commercial capitalist and only indirectly the working class, e.g., trickle down economics of tax cuts and deregulation get a hearing and are considered "serious," "responsible" and in the "mainstream" i.e., not "radical" or "extreme."

"In the domain of Political Economy, free scientific inquiry meets not merely the same enemies as in all other domains. The peculiar nature of the materials it deals with, summons as foes into the field of battle the most violent, mean and malignant passions of the human breast, the Furies of private interest."

MRJ said in reply to Darryl FKA Ron...

I like your comment about them being like each other.

One example: The right wing today includes a large contingent who actively desire and promote the failure of the US, both economically and politically, so that their side can win the up-coming election, which is strikingly reminiscent of Lenin's tactics prior to the Russian Revolution.

Seth said in reply to Jeffrey Stewart...

Correct. Krugman and Stiglitz are not being ignored by accident or simple misunderstanding. They are being studiously ignored. They are met with deep sighs and 'polite' eyes are averted in the hope that K & S will tire themselves out and simply shut up.

Here was my reaction to Krugman's recent "I'm Not Clubbable" post:

Clubbable is a synonym for Very Serious: it means taking social cues from higher status peers as the basis for evaluating information. Rather than evaluating claims by reference to facts and their logical connections, a VSP understands that demonstrating loyalty to the status hierarchy will better serve their personal interests. Demonstrated failure to conform to social expectations by stubbornly sticking with conclusions drawn from reasoned argument will make clubbable people acutely uncomfortable. They need to disassociate themselves lest they gain a reputation as a 'fellow-traveller' with disloyal types.

This is why economics went seriously wrong -- indeed the discipline quite simply 'sold out' -- when it abandoned attempts to take account of power. Power *constrains* economic outcomes, markets merely optimize within the constraints set by power.

The irony is that this sell-out is what gives economics professors the cache required to have an audience among the powerful in the first place. But when you try to speak the truth, you begin to sound uncomfortably like those scary Marxists the VSP's thought they had managed to purge many years ago.

Policy is made by [the most senior] members of the club. Your role in their world is to justify the policies they derive from their need to reinforce the status quo power structure. I'm glad you refuse to play that sycophantic part in their little morality play, but it isn't at all mysterious why you are treated the way Cassandra was.

Jeffrey Stewart

An excellent example of this pro-capitalist bias is the capitalist, corporate media and VSP fawning over the Ryan budget while the Progressive Caucus' Budget For All received...crickets.

denim:

"It's been really frustrating to watch policymakers listen to the people who got it wrong again and again, not just before the crisis but during it as well, while ignoring the people who largely got things right, and then wonder why the policies weren't more effective. If they'd listened, and it's not too late to start, things could be better today." The policymakers wanted it wrong. The goal is to establish Ayn Rand's vision for America where the sociopath is the most venerated leader of all in business or politics. A well managed pseudo-crisis works wonders for scaring the masses into the slaughterhouses.

Charlie Baker:

Paul Krugman: Things I Didn’t Say

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/things-i-didnt-say/ 

From John Heilemann’s article about the falling out between Obama and Wall Street:

After countless rehearsals of the options, Obama wanted to hear a broader range of voices. So in April, a dinner was set up at the White House with the president and a clutch of big-name economists: Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Alan Blinder, Kenneth Rogoff. “That turned out to be a defining moment in the debate,” Geithner told me. “Partly because they were all disagreeing with each other, and partly because they knew what they were against but not exactly what they were for and what it entailed—except Krugman. He was the only one willing to say, ‘Look, there’s a good case for nationalizing, but if you do, you have to understand two things: One, it’s incredibly expensive, it’ll cost trillions; and two, you have to guarantee everything.’ ” Once again, Obama cast his lot with Geithner. Uh, no. I never said that it would cost trillions of dollars. On the contrary, I didn’t think taking over Citi or B of A, which had near-zero market caps at the time, would cost much at all. I did say that we’d have to guarantee the debts of the seized banks, much as the Swedes did; but I think I said then, and certainly believed, that we were de facto guaranteeing those debts anyway — that we had already socialized the possible losses, and that the point was to give taxpayers a share of the potential gains.

I’m glad to get credit for being more realistic than the other guys — but Geithner seems to be putting a spin on what I actually said.

John Heilmann's article here:

http://nymag.com/news/politics/66188/index3.html 

Mark A. Sadowski:

 "Given his support for Hillary Clinton, it is hard to take Krugman seriously when he lambaste the Obama administration for centrism and compromising progressive values."

As Krugman has pointed out again and again Obama didn’t pose as a Nation-type progressive, then suddenly turn to the right after he won the Democratic nomination. He was always slightly less progressive than Hillary Clinton on domestic issues, and more than slightly on health care.

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur

Paine:

Oh please the Hill and Barry different in practice

Hill would use the same people and get the same results or less Given her cave factor under pressure

Mark A. Sadowski:

"Given her cave factor under pressure"

Give me a break.

Obama routinely stakes out a postion just to the left of the opposition, not because he's planning any grand Bill Clintonesque triangulation strategies, but because he *really is* the Republican-lite he's always said that he was.

But then he *always* gives into the Republicans and throws a pony into the deal for good measure.

Barry should write a book on "The Art of the Cave-In" when this thing is all over.

Mike said in reply to Sarah...

It is not just Obama. In general, modern day Democrats are to the right of Nixon. They are not liberal or progressive.

I have debated with many on the so-called left about how poor Obama's economic policies have been, and they either typically defend his policies or outright champion them.

It is flat out bizarre, but this is the land of confusion where Democrats are anything but liberal and Republicans are anything but conservative. Neither party takes kindly to criticism since they are too busy looking to blame the other party for their poor performance since it is their best chance to retain power.

Darryl FKA Ron:

Ignoring intellectuals is nothing new or singular in the US. Frederick Perls was out-voted by big pharma in the AMA/APA. Ian Mitroff has met much the same resistance as Peter Drucker. Drucker received much acclaim, but almost no one ever applied his practices. They were managing for different results. Ignored intellectuals are a dime a dozen. I prefer the Stig myself, but neither one should feel like the lone ranger. Now Joe Schumpeter was an intellectual that did not get ignored. So, it just depends upon what you are selling.

John Hulls:

The real irony of this is that the purpose of government should actually be to protect the one percent from themselves and preserve the economy for all. As a retired history professor friend recently told me, the way to understand the current Greek econodrama is to read Arisophanes 'The Acharnians', which I wrote about in a piece entitled 'Hedging the Apocalypse' at http://somewhatlogically.com/?p=598 which is mostly raises the question as to why the financial community fails to learn from others about management of high risk situations, such as nuclear weapons and aircraft safety.

What is so disturbing is that what is going to happen is pretty apparent if you take a look from a perspective outside the current economic debate, and alternate methods of modeling the economy. (I'm interested in analog simulations to illuminate environmental and resource utilization) I can't resist posting a link to a piece that I wrote in 2008, from 'Too Big to Fail to Too Large to Care' at http://somewhatlogically.com/?p=51 

Krugman and Stiglitz are sadly right, but tend to put their answers in mostly economic terms, which don't really seem to resonate with the public, as did Roosevelt's specific programs, such as the REA and federal power projects. As Brad Delong's wife said in a recent post on his blog, referring to the REA "Thankee Mr. Roosevelt"

ilsm said in reply to John Hulls...

The foundation of the democratic party goes back to Andrew Jackson or before, Jefferson.

Jackson fought the bank because the US bank threatened to bribe the lower chanber from being the peoples' house.

There was always the feeling that the elites were filled with vice and would corrupt the virtues that the masses would fit to the republic.

TR and FDR were fans of Jackson as was Truman.

A respect for Old Hickory is in order.

Darryl FKA Ron said in reply to John Hulls...

John,

Pretty kool dude. Cross disciplinary science is a must in a modern world, but the econ world has not all got on board with that yet. I just had time to skim the first article, but was smiling the whole time.

Are you familiar with Ian Mitroff?

Here is a list of his books copied from Wiki - just to give you some idea of his range:

*****************

Dirty Rotten Strategies is pretty good. I am going to have to get We're So Big And Powerful Nothing Bad Can Happen To Us.

Edward Lambert:

Stiglitz is more of an economic hero than Krugman, because Stiglitz talks more about sustainable economics and living wages...

[May 31, 2012] Economic Dark Ages?

Stan Collender is driven to shrillness:

Is This The Economic Dark Ages In The U.S?, by Stan Collender: ...a behavior -- bald-face lying --... has become so blatant and commonplace among Republican policymakers on economic issues that any one of them who is even slightly honest and candid now would be both an absolute rarity and a welcome relief.
And the fact that the GOP lying about the economy...and especially the budget...is so accepted and expected means that any Republican who wasn't jump-the-shark ridiculous on these issues wouldn't be allowed to stay in the party much longer. ...
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) ... easily qualifies as the weakest and least effective Speaker in my lifetime and has to be included on the list of the all-time worst in U.S. history, demonstrated yet again that he'll say and do anything to stay speaker even when what he's saying about the budget can easily be shown to be nonsense and when he knowingly and without giving it a second thought threatens the well-being of the U.S. economy.
I'd say this doesn't bode well for the outcome of this year's federal budget debate, but that's both obvious and an understatement. It actually points to the a period in U.S. history that is very likely to be labeled by historians as its economic dark ages.

I think that reporting on economic issues has improved, and that blogs have something to do with that. But when it comes to political reporting on economic (and other) issues, it's just as disappointing as ever. If there's no reputational or other costs associated with this behavior, why stop?

[May 31, 2012]   Disbelief in Climate Science: Is It Stupidity?

Tim Haab:

Study rules out stupidity as a cause of disbelief in climate science*:

And the Yale research published today reveals that if Americans knew more basic science and were more proficient in technical reasoning it would still result in a gap between public and scientific consensus.

Indeed, as members of the public become more science literate and numerate, the study found, individuals belonging to opposing cultural groups become even more divided on the risks that climate change poses.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study was conducted by researchers associated with the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School and involved a nationally representative sample of 1500 U.S. adults.

"The aim of the study was to test two hypotheses," said Dan Kahan, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School and a member of the study team. "The first attributes political controversy over climate change to the public's limited ability to comprehend science, and the second, to opposing sets of cultural values. The findings supported the second hypothesis and not the first," he said.

"Cultural cognition" is the term used to describe the process by which individuals' group values shape their perceptions of societal risks. It refers to the unconscious tendency of people to fit evidence of risk to positions that predominate in groups to which they belong.

The results of the study were consistent with previous studies that show that individuals with more egalitarian values disagree sharply with individuals who have more individualistic ones on the risks associated with nuclear power, gun possession, and the HPV vaccine for school girls.

via www.enn.com

*Unless you classify stubbornness as stupidity.

[Feb 26, 2012] Cathy O’Neil: How Big Pharma Cooks Data –The Case of Vioxx and Heart Disease

By Cathy O’Neil, a data scientist who lives in New York City and writes at mathbabe.org
Naked Capitalism

Yesterday I caught a lecture at Columbia given by statistics professor David Madigan, who explained to us the story of Vioxx and Merck. It’s fascinating and I was lucky to get permission to retell it here.

Disclosure

Madigan has been a paid consultant to work on litigation against Merck. He doesn’t consider Merck to be an evil company by any means, and says it does lots of good by producing medicines for people. According to him, the following Vioxx story is “a line of work where they went astray”.

Yet Madigan’s own data strongly suggests that Merck was well aware of the fatalities resulting from Vioxx, a blockbuster drug that earned them $2.4b in 2003, the year before it “voluntarily” pulled it from the market in September 2004. What you will read below shows that the company set up standard data protection and analysis plans which they later either revoked or didn’t follow through with, they gave the FDA misleading statistics to trick them into thinking the drug was safe, and set up a biased filter on an Alzheimer’s patient study to make the results look better. They hoodwinked the FDA and the New England Journal of Medicine and took advantage of the public trust which ultimately caused the deaths of thousands of people.

The data for this talk came from published papers, internal Merck documents that he saw through the litigation process, FDA documents, and SAS files with primary data coming from Merck’s clinical trials. So not all of the numbers I will state below can be corroborated, unfortunately, due to the fact that this data is not all publicly available. This is particularly outrageous considering the repercussions that this data represents to the public.

Background

The process for getting a drug approved is lengthy, requires three phases of clinical trials before getting FDA approval, and often takes well over a decade. Before the FDA approved Vioxx, less than 20,000 people tried the drug, versus 20,000,000 people after it was approved. Therefore it’s natural that rare side effects are harder to see beforehand. Also, it should be kept in mind that for the sake of clinical trials, they choose only people who are healthy outside of the one disease which is under treatment by the drug, and moreover they only take that one drug, in carefully monitored doses. Compare this to after the drug is on the market, where people could be unhealthy in various ways and could be taking other drugs or too much of this drug.

Vioxx was supposed to be a new “NSAID” drug without the bad side effects. NSAID drugs are pain killers like Aleve and ibuprofen and aspirin, but those had the unfortunate side effects of gastro-intestinal problems (but those are only among a subset of long term users, such as people who take painkillers daily to treat chronic pain, such as people with advanced arthritis). The goal was to find a pain-killer without the GI side effects. The underlying scientific goal was to find a COX-2 inhibitor without the COX-1 inhibition, since scientists had realized in 1991 that COX-2 suppression corresponded to pain relief whereas COX-1 suppression corresponded to GI problems.

Vioxx Introduced and Withdrawn From the Market

The timeline for Vioxx’s introduction to the market was accelerated: they started work in 1991 and got approval in 1999. They pulled Vioxx from the market in 2004 in the “best interest of the patient”. It turned out that it caused heart attacks and strokes. The stock price of Merck plummeted and $30 billion of its market cap was lost. There was also an avalanche of lawsuits, one of the largest resulting in a $5 billion settlement which was essentially a victory for Merck, considering they made a profit of $10 billion on the drug while it was being sold.

The story Merck will tell you is that they “voluntarily withdrew” the drug on September 30, 2004. In a placebo-controlled study of colon polyps in 2004, it was revealed that over a time period of 1200 days, 4% of the Vioxx users suffered a “cardiac, vascular, or thoracic event” (CVT event), which basically means something like a heart attack or stroke, whereas only 2% of the placebo group suffered such an event. In a group of about 2400 people, this was statistically significant, and Merck had no choice but to pull their drug from the market.

It should be noted that, on the one hand Merck should be applauded for checking for CVT events on a colon polyps study, but on the other hand that in 1997, at the International Consensus Meeting on COX-2 Inhibition, a group of leading scientists issued a warning in their Executive Summary that it was “… important to monitor cardiac side effects with selective COX-2 inhibitors”. Moreover, in an internal Merck email as early as 1996, it was stated there was a “… substantial chance that CVT will be observed.” In other words, Merck knew to look out for such things. Importantly, however, there was no subsequent insert in the medicine’s packaging that warned of possible CVT side-effects.

What the CEO of Merck Said

What did Merck say to the world at that point in 2004? You can look for yourself at the four and half hour Congressional hearing (seen on C-SPAN) which took place on November 18, 2004. Starting at 3:27:10, the then-CEO of Merck, Raymond Gilmartin, testifies that Merck “puts patients first” and “acted quickly” when there was reason to believe that Vioxx was causing CVT events. Gilmartin also went on the Charlie Rose show and repeated these claims, even go so far as stating that the 2004 study was the first time they had a study which showed evidence of such side effects.

How quickly did they really act though? Were there warning signs before September 30, 2004?

Arthritis Studies

Let’s go back to the time in 1999 when Vioxx was FDA approved. In spite of the fact that it was approved for a rather narrow use, mainly for arthritis sufferers who needed chronic pain management and were having GI problems on other meds (keeping in mind that Vioxx was way more expensive than ibuprofen or aspirin, so why would you use it unless you needed to), Merck nevertheless launched an ad campaign with Dorothy Hamill and spent $160m (compare that with Budweiser which spent $146m or Pepsi which spent $125m in the same time period).

As I mentioned, Vioxx was approved faster than usual. At the time of its approval, the completed clinical studies had only been 6- or 12-week studies; no longer term studies had been completed. However, there was one underway at the time of approval, namely a study which compared Aleve with Vioxx for people suffering from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.

What did the arthritis studies show? These results, which were available in late 2003, showed that the CVT events were more than twice as likely with Vioxx as with Aleve (CVT event rates of 32/1304 = 0.0245 with Vioxx, 6/692 = 0.0086 with Aleve, with a p-value of 0.01). As we see this is a direct refutation of the fact that CEO Gilmartin stated that they didn’t have evidence until 2004 and acted quickly when they did.

In fact they had evidence even before this, if they bothered to put it together (in fact they stated a plan to do such statistical analyses but it’s not clear if they did them- or in any case there’s so far no evidence that they actually did these promised analyses).

In a previous study (“Table 13″), available in February of 2002, the could have seen that, comparing Vioxx to placebo, we saw a CVT event rate of 27/1087 = 0.0248 with Vioxx versus 5/633 = 0.0079 with placebo, with a p-value of 0.01. So, three times as likely.

In fact, there was an even earlier study (“1999 plan”), results of which were available in July of 2000, where the Vioxx CVT event rate was 10/427 = 0.0234 versus a placebo event rate of 1/252 = 0.0040, with a p-value of 0.05 (so more than 5 times as likely). This p-value can be taken to be the definition of statistically significant. So actually they knew to be very worried as early as 2000, but maybe they… forgot to do the analysis?

The FDA and Pooled Data

Where was the FDA in all of this?

They showed the FDA some of these numbers. But they did something really tricky. Namely, they kept the “osteoarthritis study” results separate from the “rheumatoid arthritis study” results. Each alone were not quite statistically significant, but together were amply statistically significant. Moreover, they introduced a third category of study, namely the “Alzheimer’s study” results, which looked pretty insignificant (more on that below though). When you pooled all three of these study types together, the overall significance was just barely not there.

It should be mentioned that there was no apparent reason to separate the different arthritic studies, and there is evidence that they did pool such study data in other places as a standard method. That they didn’t pool those studies for the sake of their FDA report is incredibly suspicious. That the FDA didn’t pick up on this is probably due to the fact that they are overworked lawyers, and too trusting on top of that. That’s unfortunately not the only mistake the FDA made (more below).

Alzheimer’s Study

So the Alzheimer’s study kind of “saved the day” here. But let’s look into this more. First, note that the average age of the 3,000 patients in the Alzheimer’s study was 75, it was a 48-month study, and that the total number of deaths for those on Vioxx was 41 versus 24 on placebo. So actually on the face of it it sounds pretty bad for Vioxx.

There were a few contributing reasons why the numbers got so mild by the time the study’s result was pooled with the two arthritis studies. First, when really old people die, there isn’t always an autopsy. Second, although there was supposed to be a DSMB as part of the study, and one was part of the original proposal submitted to the FDA, this was dropped surreptitiously in a later FDA update. This meant there was no third party keeping an eye on the data, which is not standard operating procedure for a massive drug study and was a major mistake, possibly the biggest one, by the FDA.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Merck researchers created an added “filter” to the reported CVT events, which meant they needed the doctors who reported the CVT event to send their info to the Merck-paid people (“investigators”), who looked over the documents to decide whether it was a bonafide CVT event or not. The default was to assume it wasn’t, even though standard operating procedure would have the default assuming that there was such an event. In all, this filter removed about half the initially reported CVT events, and about twice as often the Vioxx patients had their CVT event status revoked as for the placebo patients. Note that the “investigator” in charge of checking the documents from the reporting doctors is paid $10,000 per patient. So presumably they wanted to continue to work for Merck in the future.

The effect of this “filter” was that, instead of it seeming 1.5 times as likely to have a CVT event if you were taking Voixx, it seemed like it was only 1.03 as likely, with a high p-score.

If you remove the ridiculous filter from the Alzheimer’s study, then you see that as of November 2000 there was statistically significant evidence that Vioxx caused CVT events in Alzheimer patients.

By the way, one extra note. Many of the 41 deaths in the Vioxx group were dismissed as “bizarre” and therefore unrelated to Vioxx. Namely, car accidents, falling of ladders, accidentally eating bromide pills. But at this point there’s evidence that Vioxx actually accelerates Alzheimer’s disease itself, which could explain those so-called bizarre deaths. This is not to say that Merck knew that, but rather that one should not immediately dismiss the concept of statistically significant just because it doesn’t make intuitive sense.

VIGOR and the New England Journal of Medicine

One last chapter in this sad story. There was a large-scale study, called the VIGOR study, with 8,000 patients. It was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on November 23, 2000. See also this NPR timeline for details. They didn’t show the graphs which would have emphasized this point, but they admitted, in a deceptively round-about way, that Vioxx has 4 times the number of CVT events than Aleve. They hinted that this is either because Aleve is protective against CVT events or that Vioxx is bad for it, but left it open.

But Bayer, which owns Aleve, issued a press release saying something like, “if Aleve is protective for CVT events then it’s news to us.” Bayer, it should be noted, has every reason to want people to think that Aleve is protective against CVT events. This problem, and the dubious reasoning explaining it away, was completely missed by the peer review system; if it had been spotted, Vioxx would have been forced off the market then and there. Instead, Merck purchased 900,000 preprints of this article from the NE Journal of Medicine, which is more than the number of practicing doctors in the U.S.. In other words, the Journal was used as a PR vehicle for Merck.

The paper emphasized that Aleve has twice the rate of ulcers and bleeding, at 4%, whereas Vioxx had a rate of only 2% among chronic users. When you compare that to the elevated rate of heart attack and death (0.4% to 1.2%) of Vioxx over Aleve, though, the reduced ulcer rate doesn’t seem all that impressive.

A bit more color on this paper. It was written internally by Merck, after which non-Merck authors were found. One of them is Loren Laine. Loren helped Merck develop a sound-byte interview which was 30 seconds long and was sent to the news media and run like a press interview, even though it actually happened in Merck’s New Jersey office (with a backdrop to look like a library) with a Merck employee posing as a neutral interviewer. Some smart lawyer got the outtakes of this video made available as part of the litigation against Merck. Check out this youtube video, where Laine and the fake interviewer scheme about spin and Laine admits they were being “cagey” about the renal failure issues that were poorly addressed in the article.

The Damage Done

Also on the Congress testimony I mentioned above is Dr. David Graham, who speaks passionately from minute 41:11 to minute 53:37 about Vioxx and how it is a symptom of a broken regulatory system. Please take 10 minutes to listen if you can.

He claims a conservative estimate is that 100,000 people have had heart attacks as a result of using Vioxx, leading to between 30,000 and 40,000 deaths (again conservatively estimated). He points out that this 100,000 is 5% of Iowa, and in terms people may understand better, this is like 4 aircraft falling out of the sky every week for 5 years.

According to this blog, the noticeable downwards blip in overall death count nationwide in 2004 is probably due to the fact that Vioxx was taken off the market that year.

Conclusion

Let’s face it, nobody comes out looking good in this story. The peer review system failed, the FDA failed, Merck scientists failed, and the CEO of Merck misled Congress and the people who had lost their husbands and wives to this damaging drug. The truth is, we’ve come to expect this kind of behavior from traders and bankers, but here we’re talking about issues of death and quality of life on a massive scale, and we have people playing games with statistics, with academic journals, and with the regulators.

Just as the financial system has to be changed to serve the needs of the people before the needs of the bankers, the drug trial system has to be changed to lower the incentives for cheating (and massive death tolls) just for a quick buck. As I mentioned before, it’s still not clear that they would have made less money, even including the penalties, if they had come clean in 2000. They made a bet that the fines they’d need to eventually pay would be smaller than the profits they’d make in the meantime. That sounds familiar to anyone who has been following the fallout from the credit crisis.

One thing that should be changed immediately: the clinical trials for drugs should not be run or reported on by the drug companies themselves. There has to be a third party which is in charge of testing the drugs and has the power to take the drugs off the market immediately if adverse effects (like CVT events) are found. Hopefully they will be given more power than risk firms are currently given in finance (which is none)- in other words, it needs to be more than reporting, it needs to be an active regulatory power, with smart people who understand statistics and do their own state-of-the-art analyses – although as we’ve seen above even just Stats 101 would sometimes do the trick.

Simon Wren-Lewis: Mistakes and Ideology in Macroeconomics

Via Chris Dillow, this is Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University:

Mistakes and Ideology in Macroeconomics, by Simon Wren-Lewis: Imagine a Nobel Prize winner in physics, who in public debate makes elementary errors that would embarrass a good undergraduate. Now imagine other academic colleagues, from one of the best faculties in the world, making the same errors. It could not happen. However that is exactly what has happened in macro over the last few years.

Where is my evidence for such an outlandish claim? Well here is Nobel prize winner Robert Lucas

But, if we do build the bridge by taking tax money away from somebody else, and using that to pay the bridge builder -- the guys who work on the bridge -- then it's just a wash.  It has no first-starter effect.  There's no reason to expect any stimulation.  And, in some sense, there's nothing to apply a multiplier to.  (Laughs.)  You apply a multiplier to the bridge builders, then you've got to apply the same multiplier with a minus sign to the people you taxed to build the bridge.

And here  is John Cochrane, also a professor at Chicago, and someone who has made important academic contributions to macroeconomic thinking.

Before we spend a trillion dollars or so, it’s important to understand how it’s supposed to work.  Spending supported by taxes pretty obviously won’t work:  If the government taxes A by $1 and gives the money to B, B can spend $1 more. But A spends $1 less and we are not collectively any better off.

Both make the same simple error. If you spend X at time t to build a bridge, aggregate demand increases by X at time t. If you raise taxes by X at time t, consumers will smooth this effect over time, so their spending at time t will fall by much less than X. Put the two together and aggregate demand rises.

But surely very clever people cannot make simple errors of this kind? Perhaps there is some way to re-interpret such statements so that they make sense. ,,. Brad deLong tries very hard along these lines (see here for example), but just throws up inconsistencies.

I prefer to just note that if any undergraduate or graduate student in the UK wrote this in an exam, they would lose marks. The more interesting question for me is why the errors were made. ...

I want to suggest two answers. The first is familiarity with models. I cannot imagine anyone who teaches New Keynesian economics, or who talked to people who teach New Keynesian economics, making this mistake. This is because, in these models, we do have to worry about aggregate demand. We focus on consumption smoothing, and Ricardian Equivalence... I often tell my first year undergraduate students that if they write anything like ‘Ricardian Equivalence says fiscal stimulus will never work’, they are in danger of failing. ...

Lack of familiarity with New Keynesian economics may be partly explained by the history of macroeconomic thought that I briefly noted in an earlier post. As New Keynesian theory is an ‘add-on’ to the basic Ramsey/RBC model, it is possible to teach macro without getting round to teaching New Keynesian theory. However, what many people find difficult to understand is how monetary policy (or at least monetary policy as seen by pretty much every central bank) could be regarded as an optional add-on in macroeconomics.

The second difference between physics and macro that could lead to more mistakes in the latter is ideology. When you are arguing out of ideological conviction, there is a danger that rhetoric will trump rigour. In the next paragraph Cochrane writes

These ideas changed because Keynesian economics was a failure in practice, and not just in theory. Keynes left Britain 30 years of miserable growth. Richard Nixon said, “We are all Keynesians now,” just as Keynesian policy led to the inflation and economic dislocation of the 1970s--unexpected by Keynesians but dramatically foretold by Milton Friedman’s 1968 AEA address. Keynes disdained investment, where we now all realize that saving and investment are vital to long-run growth. Keynes did not think at all about the incentives effects of taxes. He favored planning, and wrote before Hayek reminded us how modern economies cannot function without price signals.   Fiscal stimulus advocates are hanging on to a last little timber from a sunken boat of ideas, ideas that everyone including they abandoned, and from hard experience. ...

Let’s not worry about where the idea that Keynes disdained investment comes from, or any of the other questionable statements here. This is just polemic: Keynes=fiscal expansion=planning=macroeconomic failure.  It is guilt by association. What on earth does fiscal expansion have to do with planning? Well, they are both undertaken by the state.

I have argued elsewhere that the problem too many macroeconomists have with fiscal stimulus lies not in opposing schools of thought, or the validity of particular theories, or the size of particular parameters, but instead with the fact that it represents intervention by the state designed to improve the working of the market economy. They have an ideological problem with countercyclical fiscal policy. But the central bank is part of the state, and it intervenes to improve how the economy works, so this ideological view would also mean that you played down the role of monetary policy in macroeconomics. So ideology may also help explain a lack of familiarity with the models central banks use to think about monetary policy. In short, an ideological view that distorts economic thinking can lead to mistakes.

"Mechanisms vs Models"

I need to think about this more before signing onto or rejecting this argument, but here is Chris Dillow's response to the post above this one (and it provides a nice complement to the post that follows by Dan Little):

Mechanisms vs models, by Chris Dillow: Simon Wren-Lewis asks a good question about Robert Lucas‘s and John Cochrane‘s apparent misunderstanding of the balanced budget multiplier: how can very clever people make silly errors?

He suggests two good answers. I’d like to suggest a third. There are two different ways of thinking about economics - the model paradigm and the mechanism paradigm, and the former has crowded out the latter.

Simon says:

If you spend X at time t to build a bridge, aggregate demand increases by X at time t. If you raise taxes by X at time t, consumers will smooth this effect over time, so their spending at time t will fall by much less than X. Put the two together and aggregate demand rises.

This is clear and true. And it would be obvious to anyone using the mechanism paradigm. If you ask “What is the mechanism whereby higher taxes reduce consumer spending?” you pretty much walk into the notion of consumption smoothing. ...

But lots of brilliant economists don’t think merely in terms of mechanisms but rather build impressive models. And like photographers, they tend to fall in love with their models which distracts them both from others’ models and from mechanisms.

This matters, because the importance of particular mechanisms varies from time to time. The social sciences, wrote Jon Elster:

can isolate tendencies, propensities and mechanisms and show that they have implications for behaviour that are often surprising and counter-intuitive. What they are more rarely able to do is state necessary and sufficient conditions under which the various mechanisms are switched on. This is [a] reason for emphasizing mechanisms rather than laws. Laws by their nature are general…Mechanisms by contrast make no claim to generality. (Nuts and bolts for the social sciences, p 9-10)

A good example of this lies in the idea of expansionary fiscal contraction. The virtue of this idea is that it draws our attention to mechanisms (a falling exchange rate, better corporate animal spirits, whatever) whereby fiscal contraction might boost the economy. The drawback is that these mechanisms are just unlikely to operate here and now. Yes, there’s a model that tells us that expansionary fiscal contraction can work. And there are models that say it can’t. But arguing about competing models misses the practical point.

Now, there is an obvious reply to all this. Models have the virtue of ensuring internal consistency, and thus avoiding potentially misleading partial analysis. However, I’m not sure whether this is an argument against mechanisms so much as against poor thinking about them.

When I was a student (back in the 80s!) I learned lots of models (OK, a few), but when I became a practising economist, I found them to be less useful in thinking about the economy than Elsterian thinking about mechanisms.

This is not to dismiss models entirely. I’m just saying that, insofar as they have uses other than as mental gymnastics for torturing students, it is because of the mechanisms contained within them. The parts might be more useful than the sum.

Posted by Mark Thoma on Tuesday, January 10, 2012 at 10:02 AM in Economics, Macroeconomics, Methodology

"Recent Thinking About Scientific Explanation"

Dan Little discusses how the definition of a scientific explanation has changed over time:

Recent thinking about scientific explanation, by Dan Little: What do we want from a scientific explanation? Is there a single answer to this question, or is the field of explanation fundamentally heterogeneous, perhaps by discipline or by research community? Do biologists explain outcomes differently from physicists or sociologists? Is a good explanation within the Anglo-American traditions of science also a good explanation in the German or Chinese research communities? Is the idea of a scientific explanation paradigm-dependent?

For several decades in the twentieth century there was a dominant answer to this question, that was an outgrowth of the tradition of logical positivism and examples from the natural sciences. This theory of explanation focused on the idea of subsumption of an event or regularity under a higher-level set of laws. The deductive-nomological theory of explanation specified that an outcome is explained when we have produced a deductively valid argument with premises that include at least one general law and that lead to a description of the event as conclusion. Carl Hempel was the most prominent advocate for this theory (Aspects of Scientific Explanation), but it was widely accepted throughout the philosophy of science in the 1950s and 1960s. The "covering law" model was a core dogma for the philosophy of science for several decades.

The D-N theory was subject to many kinds of criticisms, including the obvious point that much explanation involves phenomena that are probabilistic rather than deterministic. Hempel introduced the inductive version of the D-N model to cover probabilistic-statistical explanation, along these lines. An argument provides a scientific explanation of E if it provides at least one probabilistic law and a set of background conditions such that, given the law and conditions, E is highly probable. This model was described as the "Inductive-Statistical" model (I-S model). Wesley Salmon's Scientific Explanation and the Causal Structure of the World falls within this tradition but offers important refinements, including his formal definition of causal relevance.

In each case the motivation for the theory of explanation is a plausible one: we explain an event when we show how it was necessary [or highly probable] in the circumstances, given existing conditions and relevant laws of nature. On the logical positivist approach, an explanation is an answer to a "why necessary" question: why did this event occur? In this conception of explanation the idea of necessity or probability is replaced with the idea of deductive or inductive derivability -- a syntactic relationship among sets of sentences.

A different approach to explanation turns to the idea of causation. We provide an explanation of an event or pattern when we succeed in identifying the causal conditions and events that brought it about. This approach can be tied to the D-N approach, if we believe that all causal relations are the manifestation of strict or probabilistic causal regularities. But not all D-N explanations are causal, and not all causal explanations invoke regularities. Derivability is no longer the criterion of explanatory success, and explanation is no longer primarily a syntactic relation between sets of sentences. Instead, substantive theories of causal powers and properties are the foundation of scientific explanation. A leading exponent of this view is Rom Harré in Harré and Madden, Causal Powers: Theory of Natural Necessity. Nancy Cartwright's Nature's Capacities and Their Measurements is also an important contribution to this view. And J. L. Mackie's The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation is an important contribution as well. The causal approach retains the idea that explanation involves showing why an event is necessary or probable, but it turns from derivability from statements of laws of nature, to theories of causal powers and properties.

The causal mechanisms approach to explanation continues the insight that explanations involve demonstrating why an event occurred; but this approach moves even farther away from the idea of a causal law, replacing it with the idea of a discrete causal mechanism. On this approach, we explain an event when we identify a series of causal interactions that lead from some antecedent condition to the outcome of interest. Hedstrom and Swedborg's Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory presents aspects of this theory of explanation in application to the social sciences. One benefit of the social mechanisms approach is that it also provides a basis for answering "how possible" questions: if our puzzlement is that an outcome has occurred that seems inherently unlikely, we can provide an account of a set of causal mechanisms that transpired to bring it about.

The chief line of dispute in the traditions mentioned so far is between the "general laws" camp and the "causal powers" camp. Both are committed to the idea that explanation involves showing how an outcome fits into the ways the world works; but the general laws approach presumes that law-like regularities are fundamental, whereas the causal approach presumes that causal powers and mechanisms are fundamental.

So what has developed in the theory of explanation in the past twenty years? Quite a bit. A recent collection of essays coming largely from the Scandinavian tradition of the philosophy of science is quite helpful in orienting readers to recent developments. This is Johannes Persson and Petri Ylikoski's 2007 Rethinking Explanation. Quite a number of the contributions are worth reading carefully. But Jan Faye's "Pragmatic-Rhetorical Theory of Explanation" is a good place to start. Faye distinguishes among three basic approaches to the theory of explanation: formal-logical, ontological, and pragmatic. The formal-logical approach is essentially the H-D and I-S approaches described above. The ontological approach is the causal-powers approach described above. The pragmatic approach is in a sense the most important recent contribution to the theory of explanation, and represents a significant re-focusing of the debates in post-empiricist philosophy of science. Here is how Faye describes the pragmatic approach to explanation-theory:

The pragmatic view sees scientific explanations to be basically similar to explanations in everyday life. It regards every explanation as an appropriate answer to an explanation-seeking question, emphasising that the context of the discourse, including the explainer’s interest and background knowledge, determines the appropriate answer.

And why should we consider a pragmatic approach? Faye offers eight reasons:

First, we have to recognise that even within the natural sciences there exist many different types of accounts, which scientists regard as explanatory.

Second, if one is looking for a prescriptive treatment of explanation, I see no reason why the social sciences and the humanities should be excluded from such a prescription. If they are included, the prescriptive account must include intentional and interpretive explanations, i.e., accounts providing information about either motives or meanings.

Third, the meaning of a why-question alone does not determine whether the answer is relevant or not.

Fourth, John Searle has correctly argued that the meaning of every indicative sentence is context-dependent. He does not deny that many sentences have literal meaning, which is traditionally seen as the semantic content a sentence has independently of any context.

Fifth, many explanations take the form of stories. Arthur Danto has argued that what we want to explain is always a change of some sort. When a change occurs, we have one situation before and another situation after, and the explanation is what connects these two situations. This is the story.

Sixth, a change always takes place in a complex causal field of circumstances each of which is necessary for its occurrence. Writers like P.W. Bridgman, Norwood Russell Hanson, John Mackie, and Bas van Fraassen have all correctly argued that events are enmeshed in a causal network and that it is the salient factors mentioned in an explanation that constitute the causes of that events.

Seventh, the level of explanation depends also on our interest of communication. In science an appropriate nomic or causal account can be given on the basis of different explanatory levels, and which of these levels one selects as informative depends very much on the rhetorical purposes.

Eight, scientific theories are empirically underdetermined by data. It is always possible to develop competing theories that explain things differently and, therefore, it is impossible to set up a crucial experiment that shows which of these theories that yields the correct account of the data available.

Faye then goes on to analyze scientific explanation as a speech act. We need to understand the presuppositions and purposes that the explainer and the listener have, before we can say much about how the explanation works.

Petri Ylikoski's contribution to the volume, "The Idea of Contrastive Explanandum," picks up on one particular but pervasively important feature of the rhetorical situation of explanation, the idea of contrast. When we ask for an explanation of an outcome, often we are not asking simply why it occurred, but rather why it occurred instead of something else. And the contrastive condition is crucial. If we ask "why did the Prussian army win the Franco-Prussian War?", the answer we give will be very different depending on whether we understand the question as:

"Why did the Prussian army [rather than the French army] win the Franco-Prussian War?"

or:

"Why did the Prussian army win [rather than fighting to stalemate] the Franco-Prussian War?"

So scientific explanation is context-dependent in at least this important respect: we need to understand what the question-asker has in mind before we can provide an adequate explanation from his/her point of view. As Henrik Hallsten puts it in his contribution, "What to Ask of an Explanation-Theory",

To summarize: Any explanation-theory must [do] justice to the distinction between objective explanatory relevance and context dependent explanatory relevance or provide good arguments as to why this distinction should not be upheld. (16)

So perhaps the most important recent developments in the theory of scientific explanation fall in a few categories. First, there has been substantial work on refining the idea of causal explanation (link). Second, philosophers have reinforced the idea that explanation has pragmatic and rhetorical aspects that cannot be put aside in favor of syntactic and substantive features of explanation. And third, there is more recognition and acceptance of the idea that explanatory models and standards may reasonably differ across disciplines and research areas. In particular, the social and historical sciences are entitled to offer explanatory frameworks that are well adapted to the particular kinds of why and how questions that are posed in these fields. In each case the philosophy of science has made a very great deal of progress since the state of the debates about explanation that transpired in the 1960s.

[Dec 04, 2011] The Seduction of Science in the Service of Power An Essay on the State of Economics

October 07, 2011 | Jesse's Café Américain

"Tyranny is always better organized than freedom."

-- Charles Peguy

This essay by John Kay excerpted below is a very nice summary of the problem we have in modern economics. It is a bit dry to the layman, but it touches on the distortions that crept in to economic thought and their intellectual sources and in particular the operational rather than political means.

I do not think it was unintentional. Economics served to distort public policy and blind people to unfolding reality. Investments in think tanks and universities encouraged and paid for misleading reports and studies, draping propaganda in the robes of respectable academia and faux science.

This is certainly not the first time this sort of thing has happened. Medicine has a rather checkered history in service to power. These types of distortions can of course cut both ways, and science has been used to justify abuses from all ends of the political spectrum.

The concept to remember then, is that economics and other sciences are no substitutes for public policy. Policy is not an outcome of economic science, but rather, policy is set and renewed from first principles, a commitment to certain ideals and common objectives. Economics and other sciences do play a role in shaping the details of implementation. But we must revisit and determine the effect which those details have on the achievement of first principles.

Unfortunately we must sift those inputs with care, and especially the assumptions on which they are based, because the professions have shown a willingness to misrepresent, distort, and even lie for money and power.

One must always come back to first principles, to some notion of what they, and by extension their community, wish to be. Is the first principle of the US the maximizing of profit? By what measures, and to whom? Or is it something else again.

This is the question that the protesters of Occupy Wall Street are asking. People of the status quo say, 'What do they want? What is their solution?' No, it is they who are asking the question of those comfortable people in power. If they have any statement to make, it is 'The Emperor has no clothes.'

And since the modern day Emperors do not wish to answer the people plainly and honestly, having only their tired old lies, they become uncomfortable and afraid. Instead they ignore, ridicule, and silence the question, offering new lies and scapegoats, claiming all is well. And it is, at least for them.

If the people are ignored and abused long enough they will stop asking questions and begin to make their demands and push them forward, and then it may be too late as these things obtain their own momentum.

Economics is a discredited science at the moment. A few practitioners sold its soul and honor to a small group of wealthy ideologues while the great majority remained silent. But certainly no more discredited than the doctors who served the policies of euthanasia or the Russian abuse of psychiatric wards. And when the destroyers appear on the horizon, the mechanical sciences and their industrialists are generally seen swimming out to meet the boats.

But a caution is that those who promoted false theories for power and money in the service of crony capitalism are still at work, and the results are more difficult to see than piles of dead bodies, or rooms full of broken individuals.

The answer is not to turn away from knowledge, and embrace a hatred of science promoted by a new crop of passionate know-nothings, although that also is a recurrent historical theme, and a phenomenon already evident as a minority theme in the world of politics and a certain status quo.  In this modern age they not only have their own magazine but television channels as well.

Science has its proper place. But it is not at the top, dictating outcomes in the social world like the answers to irrefutable equations. And it is especially good that we remember this when science is abused, and used to justify cruelty, selfishness, and plunder.

"The preposterous claim that deviations from market efficiency were not only irrelevant to the recent crisis but could never be relevant is the product of an environment in which deduction has driven out induction and ideology has taken over from observation.

The belief that models are not just useful tools but also are capable of yielding comprehensive and universal descriptions of the world has blinded its proponents to realities that have been staring them in the face. That blindness was an element in our present crisis, and conditions our still ineffectual responses.

Economists – in government agencies as well as universities – were obsessively playing Grand Theft Auto while the world around them was falling apart."

John Kay, An Essay on the State of Economics

This intellectual and financial decline traces back perhaps to the closing of the gold window by Nixon, and the rise of the willful relativism of value with fiat money.  But more important is the subsequent rise of the financialization industry, under the flag of efficient markets and deregulation and globalization.

The country became gripped by a preoccupation with aggregating wealth from the real economy by manipulating paper. Not only were their real direct effects, but there were profound long term effects through the malinvestment and diversion of strategic resources.   And the absolute worst of it has come from the corporations and those who serve them.

As Satyajit Das puts it in his most recent book interviews:

"The best and brightest went into finance because... it paid better than every other profession. So we had this whole generation of people — who would have been great scientists, great doctors, great creators of other things — attracted to a business which ultimately only provided, to a substantial degree, toxic waste. And that is the tragedy of our time. ... It was this diversion of enormous amounts of talent."
People can point to select innovations like Facebook and the iPod, but in fact America's technical and physical infrastructure has been distorted and has languished because public policy unleashed the financiers, the money magicians, and then became captive to them. And they have willfully led their people into a lingering period of decline.

I hope to have no illusions.  Those who give themselves over to the dark impulses of their imagination often prove more impervious to reason with each victory.  At some point they are blooded, and it is then they make the decision whether to come back to their senses, or go forward to the bitter end.  And in their pathological delusion they might continue to reaffirm their perceived advantages, and mythological self, while standing in the ruins, or on a scaffold, or as they are about to end their bitter compulsions in a bunker.

But there is room for optimism. The ordinary people are starting to wake up and come out of their slumber, most notably in the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. And a number of eminent economists like Thoma, Krugman and Stiglitz are putting forward principled stands for meaningful reform and constructive change for the better. It is the minority that is the problem, because of the silence of the majority which is always slow to stir.

No one knows how this will turn out yet. There is always hope against forces that seem far too powerful at the moment. And tyranny is always better organized than freedom.

At the worst, some day this entire episode may be expressed by those who write history for the young as the madness of the ignorant crowd, acting foolishly despite the best efforts of their leaders and intellectuals to restrain them.

Some inquisitive student may find this little morsel of thought, and his mind will be provoked, and a flickering light of truth will be struck from that spark, to caution ordinary people about the imperfections and corruptibility of even the best, the dark hearts of predators who walk unseen among us, and the danger of too much power in too few hands.

And if not now, then perhaps in some better tomorrow. Nothing is ever wasted in God's economy.
 

[Mar 30, 2011] Confidence Slips Away as Japan Battles Nuclear Peril

NYTimes.com

Readers' Comments

Dr Jaan (Tallinn, Estonia)

Soon after GE started production of the type of reactors found in Fukushima, the Mark 1 type reactors, American regulators discovered serious weaknesses. Already in 1972, Stephen H. Hanauer, a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, said that the Mark 1 system should be banned. There were a number of concerns, but the greatest problem was that he found that the smaller containment design is too susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup of hydrogen. This is exactly what now has happened at Fukushima Daiichi. Moreover it was warned already in 1972, that if a Mark 1 reactor's cooling system failed, the fuel rods would overheat and, because of this, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would burst, spilling radiation into the environment. That is exactly what now happened at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

General Electric however ignored these warnings. They denied that the reactors were unsafe and continued to produce these reactors. Obviously they were wrong and the question is whether they made an error of judgment or very well knew that the reactors were unsafe but still continued production.

In the late 1980s, Mark 1 reactors in the United States were retrofitted with venting systems. Their purpose is to help ease pressure in overheating situations, after Harold Denton, an expert at the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, warned that Mark 1 reactors had a 90 percent probability of bursting if the fuel rods were to overheat and melt in an accident. This exactly what happened in Japan, so the question is if the Japanese reactors were not retrofitted. If so, in my opinion, a heavy burden falls on General Electric.

(Main source: http://www.sott.net/articles/show/225976-Dangers-Of-General-Electric-s-M...

225976-Dangers-Of-General-Electric-s-M...

Sandy (Pennsylvania)

David Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists testified today before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Ponder this from his statement:

"And I cannot emphasize enough that the lessons from Japan apply to all US reactors, but just the boiling water reactors like those affected at Fukushima. None are immune to station blackout problems. All must be made less vulnerable to those problems."

and

"Eleven US reactors are designed to cope with a station blackout lasting eight hours, as were the reactors in Japan. Ninety-three of our reactors are designed to cope for only four hours."

Here's the PDF of his statement: lochbaum-senate-ene...

It doesn't take an earthquake followed by a tsunami, all it takes is for the electricity to go out.

Ron

I live in Tokyo and would like to comment that this article is factually incorrect. It states "a plant ravaged by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake." The 9.0 earthquake occurred far out at sea, and the coastal areas where the reactors are experienced a 6+ or 7 earthquake. On a logarithmic scale this is a hundred times different. Please get your facts straight.

sas (new york)

here's a more serious take on the fuku nuke disaster from the hawaii news daily:
http://hawaiinewsdaily.com/2011/03/when-the-fukushima-meltdown-hits-grou...

When the Fukushima Meltdown Hits Groundwater March 27, 2011 By Dr. Tom Burnett

... ... ...

Fukushima was waiting to happen because of the placement of the emergency generators. If they had not all failed at once by being inundated by a tsunami, Fukushima would not have happened as it did – although it WOULD still have been a nuclear disaster. Every containment in the world is built to withstand a Magnitude 6.9 earthquake; the Japanese chose to ignore the fact that a similar earthquake had hit that same general area in 1896.

Anyway, here is the information that the US doesn’t seem to want released. And here is a chart that might help with perspective.

Making matters worse is the MOX in reactor 3. MOX is the street name for ‘mixed oxide fuel‘ which uses ~9% plutonium along with a uranium compound to fuel reactors. This is why it can be used.

The problem is that you don’t want to play with this stuff. A nuclear reactor means bring fissile material to a point at which it is hot enough to boil water (in a light-water reactor) and not enough to melt and go supercritical (China syndrome or a Chernobyl incident). You simply cannot let it get away from you because if it does, you can’t stop it.

[Mar 29, 2011] Japan's deadly game of nuclear roulette by LEUREN MORET

Due to importance and the possibility that thee article will disappear from the Web it is reproduced entirely...
May 23, 2004 | The Japan Times

Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list.

News photo
An aerial view of the Hamaoka plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, "the most dangerous nuclear power plant in Japan"

The Japanese archipelago is located on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, a large active volcanic and tectonic zone ringing North and South America, Asia and island arcs in Southeast Asia. The major earthquakes and active volcanoes occurring there are caused by the westward movement of the Pacific tectonic plate and other plates leading to subduction under Asia.

Japan sits on top of four tectonic plates, at the edge of the subduction zone, and is in one of the most tectonically active regions of the world. It was extreme pressures and temperatures, resulting from the violent plate movements beneath the seafloor, that created the beautiful islands and volcanoes of Japan.

Nonetheless, like many countries around the world -- where General Electric and Westinghouse designs are used in 85 percent of all commercial reactors -- Japan has turned to nuclear power as a major energy source. In fact the three top nuclear-energy countries are the United States, where the existence of 118 reactors was acknowledged by the Department of Energy in 2000, France with 72 and Japan, where 52 active reactors were cited in a December 2003 Cabinet White Paper.

The 52 reactors in Japan -- which generate a little over 30 percent of its electricity -- are located in an area the size of California, many within 150 km of each other and almost all built along the coast where seawater is available to cool them.

However, many of those reactors have been negligently sited on active faults, particularly in the subduction zone along the Pacific coast, where major earthquakes of magnitude 7-8 or more on the Richter scale occur frequently. The periodicity of major earthquakes in Japan is less than 10 years. There is almost no geologic setting in the world more dangerous for nuclear power than Japan -- the third-ranked country in the world for nuclear reactors.

"I think the situation right now is very scary," says Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and professor at Kobe University. "It's like a kamikaze terrorist wrapped in bombs just waiting to explode."

Last summer, I visited Hamaoka nuclear power plant in Shizuoka Prefecture, at the request of citizens concerned about the danger of a major earthquake. I spoke about my findings at press conferences afterward.

News photo
A map of Japan annotated by the author, showing the tectonic plates, areas of high ("observed region") and very high ("specially observed") quake risk, and the sites of nuclear reactors

 

Because Hamaoka sits directly over the subduction zone near the junction of two plates, and is overdue for a major earthquake, it is considered to be the most dangerous nuclear power plant in Japan.

Together with local citizens, I spent the day walking around the facility, collecting rocks, studying the soft sediments it sits on and tracing the nearly vertical faults through the area -- evidence of violent tectonic movements.

The next day I was surprised to see so many reporters attending the two press conferences held at Kakegawa City Hall and Shizuoka Prefecture Hall. When I asked the reporters why they had come so far from Tokyo to hear an American geoscientist, I was told it was because no foreigner had ever come to tell them how dangerous Japan's nuclear power plants are.

I told them that this is the power of gaiatsu (foreign pressure), and because citizens in the United States with similar concerns attract little media attention, we invite a Japanese to speak for us when we want media coverage -- someone like the famous seismologist Professor Ishibashi!

When the geologic evidence was presented confirming the extreme danger at Hamaoka, the attending media were obviously shocked. The aerial map, filed by Chubu Electric Company along with its government application to build and operate the plant, showed major faults going through Hamaoka, and revealed that the company recognized the danger of an earthquake. They had carefully placed each reactor between major fault lines.

"The structures of the nuclear plant are directly rooted in the rock bed and can tolerate a quake of magnitude 8.5 on the Richter scale," the utility claimed on its Web site.

From my research and the investigation I conducted of the rocks in the area, I found that that the sedimentary beds underlying the plant were badly faulted. Some tiny faults I located were less than 1 cm apart.

When I held up samples of the rocks the plant was sitting on, they crumbled like sugar in my fingers. "But the power company told us these were really solid rocks!" the reporters said. I asked, "Do you think these are really solid?' and they started laughing.

On July 7 last year, the same day of my visit to Hamaoka, Ishibashi warned of the danger of an earthquake-induced nuclear disaster, not only to Japan but globally, at an International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics conference held in Sapporo. He said: "The seismic designs of nuclear facilities are based on standards that are too old from the viewpoint of modern seismology and are insufficient. The authorities must admit the possibility that an earthquake-nuclear disaster could happen and weigh the risks objectively."

After the greatest nuclear power plant disaster in Japan's history at Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, in September 1999, large, expensive Emergency Response Centers were built near nuclear power plants to calm nearby residents.

After visiting the center a few kilometers from Hamaoka, I realized that Japan has no real nuclear-disaster plan in the event that an earthquake damaged a reactor's water-cooling system and triggered a reactor meltdown.

Additionally, but not even mentioned by ERC officials, there is an extreme danger of an earthquake causing a loss of water coolant in the pools where spent fuel rods are kept. As reported last year in the journal Science and Global Security, based on a 2001 study by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, if the heat-removing function of those pools is seriously compromised -- by, for example, the water in them draining out -- and the fuel rods heat up enough to combust, the radiation inside them will then be released into the atmosphere. This may create a nuclear disaster even greater than Chernobyl.

If a nuclear disaster occurred, power-plant workers as well as emergency-response personnel in the Hamaoka ERC would immediately be exposed to lethal radiation. During my visit, ERC engineers showed us a tiny shower at the center, which they said would be used for "decontamination' of personnel. However, it would be useless for internally exposed emergency-response workers who inhaled radiation.

When I asked ERC officials how they planned to evacuate millions of people from Shizuoka Prefecture and beyond after a Kobe-magnitude earthquake (Kobe is on the same subduction zone as Hamaoka) destroyed communication lines, roads, railroads, drinking-water supplies and sewage lines, they had no answer.

Last year, James Lee Witt, former director of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, was hired by New York citizens to assess the U.S. government's emergency-response plan for a nuclear power plant disaster. Citizens were shocked to learn that there was no government plan adequate to respond to a disaster at the Indian Point nuclear reactor, just 80 km from New York City.

The Japanese government is no better prepared, because there is no adequate response possible to contain or deal with such a disaster. Prevention is really the only effective measure to consider.

In 1998, Kei Sugaoka, 51, a Japanese-American senior field engineer who worked for General Electric in the United States from 1980 until being dismissed in 1998 for whistle-blowing there, alerted Japanese nuclear regulators to a 1989 reactor inspection problem he claimed had been withheld by GE from their customer, Tokyo Electric Power Company. This led to nuclear-plant shutdowns and reforms of Japan's power industry.

Later it was revealed from GE documents that they had in fact informed TEPCO -- but that company did not notify government regulators of the hazards.

Yoichi Kikuchi, a Japanese nuclear engineer who also became a whistle-blower, has told me personally of many safety problems at Japan's nuclear power plants, such as cracks in pipes in the cooling system from vibrations in the reactor. He said the electric companies are "gambling in a dangerous game to increase profits and decrease government oversight."

Sugaoka agreed, saying, "The scariest thing, on top of all the other problems, is that all nuclear power plants are aging, causing a deterioration of piping and joints which are always exposed to strong radiation and heat."

Like most whistle-blowers, Sugaoka and Kikuchi are citizen heroes, but are now unemployed.

The Radiation and Public Health Project, a group of independent U.S. scientists, has collected 4,000 baby teeth from children living around nuclear power plants. These teeth were then tested to determine their level of Strontium-90, a radioactive fission product that escapes in nuclear power plant emissions.

Unborn children may be exposed to Strontium-90 through drinking water and the diet of the mother. Anyone living near nuclear power plants is internally exposed to chronically low levels of radiation contaminating food and drinking water. Increased rates of cancer, infant mortality and low birth weights leading to cognitive impairment have been linked to radiation exposure for decades.

However, a recent independent report on low-level radiation by the European Committee on Radiation Risk, released for the European Parliament in January 2003, established that the ongoing U.S. Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Studies conducted in Japan by the U.S. government since 1945 on Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors underestimated the risk of radiation exposure as much as 1,000 times.

Additionally, on March 26 this year -- the eve of the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear disaster in U.S. history, at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania -- the Radiation and Public Health Project released new data on the effects of that event. This showed rises in infant deaths up to 53 percent, and in thyroid cancer of more than 70 percent in downwind counties -- data which, like all that concerning both the short- and long-term health effects, has never been forthcoming from the U.S. government.

It is not a question of whether or not a nuclear disaster will occur in Japan; it is a question of when it will occur.

Like the former Soviet Union after Chernobyl, Japan will become a country suffering from radiation sickness destroying future generations, and widespread contamination of agricultural areas will ensure a public-health disaster. Its economy may never recover.

Considering the extreme danger of major earthquakes, the many serious safety and waste-disposal issues, it is timely and urgent -- with about half its reactors currently shut down -- for Japan to convert nuclear power plants to fossil fuels such as natural gas. This process is less expensive than building new power plants and, with political and other hurdles overcome, natural gas from the huge Siberian reserves could be piped in at relatively low cost. Several U.S. nuclear plants have been converted to natural gas after citizen pressure forced energy companies to make changeovers.

Commenting on this way out of the nuclear trap, Ernest Sternglass, a renowned U.S. scientist who helped to stop atmospheric testing in America, notes that, 'Most recently the Fort St. Vrain reactor in Colorado was converted to fossil fuel, actually natural gas, after repeated problems with the reactor. An earlier reactor was the Zimmer Power Plant in Cincinnati, which was originally designed as a nuclear plant but it was converted to natural gas before it began operating. This conversion can be done on any plant at a small fraction [20-30 percent] of the cost of building a new plant. Existing turbines, transmission facilities and land can be used."

After converting to natural gas, the Fort St. Vrain plant produced twice as much electricity much more efficiently and cheaply than from nuclear energy -- with no nuclear hazard at all, of course.

It is time to make the changeover from nuclear fuel to fossil fuels in order to save future generations and the economy of Japan.

Leuren Moret is a geoscientist who worked at the Lawrence Livermore Nuclear Weapons Laboratory on the Yucca Mountain Project, and became a whistle-blower in 1991 by reporting science fraud on the project and at Livermore. She is an independent and international radiation specialist, and the Environmental Commissioner in the city of Berkeley, Calif. She has visited Japan four times to work with Japanese citizens, scientists and elected officials on radiation and peace issues. She can be contacted at leurenmoret@yahoo.com

Government Responds to Nuclear Accident by Trying to Raise Acceptable Radiation Levels and Pretending that Radiation is Good For Us

"Sensationalism of any type detracts from credibility and distracts from sober appreciation of the important issues, of the real risks, and of the need for transparency and accountability — not just in the case of nuclear power, but in all matters of public policy."
March 29, 2011 | naked capitalism

Bob Kerns:

A check of the EPA website reveals that they have NOT pulled those 8 monitors, as this article claims. Indeed, I was able to pull up data from the one in San Jose with a click of my mouse.

Rather, the 8 monitors are being reviewed, to understand the readings, for example, whether the change is due to a change in the local environment. This sort of review is essential if we are to trust their accuracy.

This is also part of the reasoning behind having so many of them.

There are a few around the country (7 by my informal count) which are out of service, out of 124 total.

This is very different than what was reported.

On the other hand, I compared what Ann Coulter said, and Lawrence Solomon wrote, to what the scientists wrote — and I can see why you might suspect a concerted propaganda campaign, although you actually present no evidence. I can present no evidence there is not, and their behavior is certainly consistent with such a campaign!

The scientists were searching for whether there’s threshold below which radiation damage is no longer linear. Understanding this is part of fundamentally understanding how radiation affects us, and assessing radiation risks, not just from nuclear plants, but from granite countertops in your kitchen.

What they found is a little surprising, and needs to be verified by further experiments. They found that the cancer rate was slightly less at the lowest exposures than in the controls. This could be true, for example, if cancer cells are more susceptible to radiation than normal cells — it could be both causing and curing cancer. (I’m not saying that’s the explanation — I’m just illustrating how complex phenomena can interact, especially when dealing with small numbers).

What these “journalists” have done, is take an odd quirk in a scientific finding, and, entirely on their own, turned it into a “plutonium is good for you” argument.

The scientists did not make this argument. THEIR conclusion was, that this suggests that, if a threshold exists, it probably exists in the range of 15-40 cGy. This is over the lifetime (the plutonium stays in place), so we’re talking about total exposure, equivalent to a few chest CT scans.

But if there is a threshold, inhaling even tiny amounts of plutonium clearly puts you closer to that threshold — and somebody working in a dusty environment might be exposed to far more. Nobody with a shred of responsibility or credibility is arguing that plutonium is good for you.

Clearly, Ann Coulter and Lawrence Solomon have both shed any remnants of credibility and responsibility they may have had.

Personally, I think the conspiracy here is to sell advertising. There’s a lot of past precedent in inflated headlines to draw readers to news outlets. Even CBS has recently succumbed, shouting that “pools of plutonium” have been discovered outside the reactors — as opposed to the reality — traces slightly above the expected background (from atmospheric testing). Even the article didn’t make that claim — it was invented by the editor who wrote the headline.

So please don’t become a “media shill” yourself, and lump the government scientists in with those pushing sensationalism.

Sensationalism of any type detracts from credibility and distracts from sober appreciation of the important issues, of the real risks, and of the need for transparency and accountability — not just in the case of nuclear power, but in all matters of public policy.

The facts as they stand are scary enough. The prospect of 9 billion people on this planet, all of them demanding energy and food, should give us real pause. Every war fought is a disaster — many far larger than this one. Natural disasters that would have gone unnoticed, will strain already overburdened food supplies, or displace thousands crammed into dangerous locations, simply because they have to live somewhere.

If we’re going to address the world’s present and future problems, we need to address the risks we face honestly, and as accurately as we can.

David:

Well said, Bob.
Fear seems to be a prevalent, underlying response to much of what gets written at this site. Sensationalism sells more than common sense.

dearieme :

The idea that radiation must damage you, however low its level, is not based on data – it was just an assumption made long ago before there were data. The idea that plutonium is especially scary is rather babyish – it’s nasty stuff, all right, but not because of its radioactivity. It’s not out of line with other radioisotopes – the problem is a chemical one: it’s toxic. And like all toxins, ‘the poison is in the dose’.

“uninformed frothing” seems a pretty fair description. Or hysterical pants-wetting would do.

Justin:

The problem with plutonium is not chemical. Radioactivity is mutagenic/carcinogenic via alpha/beta/gamma particle ionizing interaction with the body, which is not the same as chemical ionization process. Several Plutonium isotopes have long half lives as alpha emitters, which generally have less penetrability than beta and gamma particles. However if inhaled or ingested they have a greater chance of altering a cell than beta or gamma radiation would, as they have slower speed, more mass and energy and thus more chance of absorbtion/interaction with cell structures.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_particle

gepay

The problem faced by radiation protection officials is that reactors create a massive cocktail of radionuclides with widely differing characteristics and different biochemistry. Some concentrate in muscle, some in bone, teeth and DNA, some in lymph nodes. Some don’t concentrate anywhere. Some cause localised damage, others don’t. Radioactivity is like poison – there are many different kinds and they operate by myriad biological mechanisms. Accurate modelling of the biological effects of either radioactivity or poison involves understanding the specific variations, but that makes regulation very complex.

For convenience in the 1940s and early ’50s nuclear officials decided to treat the energy of the radioactive decays from all kinds of radionuclide as if they were a uniformly distributed dose. Then they quantified the expected disease, dose for dose, by reference to studies of the Japanese survivors of Hiroshima. These people in fact were exposed to a uniformly distributed dose – the flash of the bomb itself – and the effects of unevenly distributed internal radioactivity were excluded from the study by the clever trick of comparing the “exposed” bomb survivors with “unexposed” people (”controls”) who lived in the city but had been shielded when the bomb exploded. Thus the controls and the study group had equal amounts of radioactive fallout inside them.

Justin:

I do think the reactor disaster is a huge concern, primarily for Japan.

However, you have a number of misstatements and conflations in your blog posts. For example, there are quite a few isotopes other that Cs-137 that have been created via manmade nuclear reaction whose halflife is short enough not to be naturally occurring in significant quantities. so it is not unique in that regard.

Background radiation is one effective relative measurement despite differences in isotopes, because the exposure pathway result is the same: direct exposure to external radiation.

So while you do say that the problem is more complex than just relative radiation levels, that’s not new information.

There is a field of study already that models all risks from environmental radioactivity releases: radiation risk exposure analysis. It takes into account initial and residual release, dispersion patterns, composition and concentrations of radionuclides, environmental transport pathways, exposure pathways, and generates statistical distributions of both short term and total effective doses.

ResRad is freely available to download if one would like to do their own model, however quite a few international scientific organizations are already doing so.

I think it’s difficult for most people to know exactly what to worry about with the reactor disaster and what to do, so I applaud people for getting informed. However, like medical knowledge, a little can be more dangerous than none at all in that it can allow emotion to change our estimation of the real risks.

Chris Rogers:

SteveA, I trust my posting have made clear one does not make light of the Fukushima nuclear crisis – by using the term ‘crisis’ I suggest one has conveyed how dangerous the situation is, and hopefully, dare I say it, the plant operator has the incident under some meaningful control.

What has annoyed me from day one of the ‘crisis’ is the outrageous media reporting of this crisis, the scare mongering and absolute crass behaviour of those 1000’s of miles away from Fukushima that borders on madness – a madness inspired by the poor reporting of the facts, little knowledge of scientific jargon used and a clear lack of emphasis on the 20,000 deaths attributable to a rather large tsunami.

Rather than ‘down play’ the incident, most reasoned posters quite rightly have stated that this is a nuclear disaster, one of the worst on record and obviously, many dangers exist and will continue to exists.

Will this disaster lead to a huge loss of life though, my understanding from reading the UNCLEAR report on Chernobyl, is that unlike that disaster, the impact on human’s will be limited and a greater danger exists due to panic, rather than various radioactive elements being emitted from the damaged plant.

Lets be clear, generating power from nuclear energy sources is always going to be dangerous and such dangers are taken into account when building these large infrastructures.

In all seriousness, we should all be glad that the plant survived the earthquake intact and that we don’t face another Chernobyl catastrophe.

As a reasoned observer, obviously one questions why a nuclear facility is built in a earthquake zone region, why necessary precautions were not taken against a tsunami – I’m referring here to the fact that whilst the plant had a sea wall defence, engineers forgot what would happen if it was breached.

Now, the true cause of this disaster/crisis was a loss of electricity to power cooling – combine this with the fact that the diesel generators were at ground level or in basements, suggests a huge engineering blunder was made, one I trust the Japanese will learn from.

So, we have a real crisis, one that currently seems under control, but a crisis nonetheless.

Does this mean living close to Japan I should panic, obviously not – I note the Korean’s have not acted like headless chickens – I wish I could make this claim for many in the USA, unfortunately, following crass reporting standards, many citizens have behaved like headless chickens and purchased large amounts of iodine and bottled water – had they lived in Korea I could understand, that they live more than 5,000 miles away from Fukushima, one questions their sanity – to put it bluntly, those poor desperate fools who supported the Tea Party are the same fools running around like headless chickens who share one brain cell between them.

Thank god I’m British, I note my Embassy is open in Tokyo, which best sums it up – there is little to fear apart from fear itself, yes, we have a crisis, but as stated all along, not a crisis comparable with Chernobyl – hence, the health risks, that’s the real ones are less. Risks still exist nonetheless, whether these will result in any deaths is questionable as the UNCLEAR report I keep mentioning makes clear – a link can be found in one of my other posts for this.

 

[Mar 28, 2011] Radiophobia

"Ignorance of basic scientific concepts remains a persistent problem for supposedly well-educated writers in the mass media."  Comment 61 from Confidence Slips Away as Japan Battles Nuclear Peril- NYTimes.com

 

 

While in discussion of Japan nuclear disaster we all are out of depth, and the facts on the ground are difficult to interpret even for specialists it is important to avoid radiophobia and do not propagate it consciously or unconsciously. .

From pure scientific perspective in no way Japan in 2011 situation is close to Chernobyl (no burning graphite on site) and I think that progress is sufficient to state that full meltdown was avoided.

Now the main danger I think is spreading panic not so much temporary spike in actual radiation.

Information available is distorted due to extremely low level of understanding of the nature of ionizing radiation (which is not uniform and consists of three different types).

The problem of radioactive contamination of food chain (also with several pretty different sources with different half-life periods) is a completely separate problem which is not that different from presence of dioxin, lead, and other heavy metals in food and water. I think many people who post here do not understand the danger of typical levels of radon in basements of NJ and NY and happy go there to do laundry and other household chores on a regular basis.

After all US high schools eliminated physics as a separate subject :-)

Please remember that physicists like Marie Curie, Ernest Rutherford and many others worked with radioactive materials without any precautions and none of them died quickly. Also people forget about lake Karachay problem ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Karachay ).

Also the whole planet is contaminated with Caesium-137 (hal-life 30 years) due to atmospheric nuclear testing in 1946-1963, while some parts of the USA territory are additionally contaminated with very toxic DU powder (perfect dirty bomb component) from DU weapons testing (http://vzajic.tripod.com/5thchapter.html). There was pretty telling incident in which Caesium-137 was distributed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goi%C3%A2nia_accident). I think reading this description of human propagated Caesium-137 dirty bomb is enough to stop fear mongering about Japan case.

BTW after 1954 the Castle Bravo radioactive fallout (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Bravo) one member of the Japaneses fishing boat crew which was in the area died from radiation sickness after returning to the port. So high levels of contamination of both atmosphere and the ocean are not new. BTW there are life forms that learned to use radiation as energy source and live inside Chernobyl sarcophagus.

But panic is deadly and can cause immediate harm to both physical and mental health.

I think that in this particular forum poster under nickname “Maju” can serve as a field manual to this type of phobia. (see for example the statement “As far as I know there was a 40% increase in deadly cancers in Belarus after the Chernobyl accident.”. Is not this blatant fear mongering ? What is the source of this figure??? ).

This looks like a pretty widespread, dangerous phobia propagated with the help of MSM and I would advocate extreme restraint in related statements especially from non-specialists.

See

http://www.saharov.com/eshact/Research/Radiophobia/tabid/123/Default.aspx

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radiophobia

http://www.phobia-fear-release.com/radiophobia.html

Panic is really deadly. And fear mongering about Japan nuclear disaster is really dangerous and dishonest: some people already hurt themselves by taking excessive amount iodine pills (they were swiped from the shelves). And this is just a start. A lot of crazy things is going on with this mass radiophobia hysteria that swiped the USA (and not only the USA).

Also we need to understand that coal-burning power plants are more significant source of nuclear poisoning of the USA (see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste) then nuclear plants.

Here are key points that I think people need to think about:

Is this a tragedy. Yes. But lessons learned from it as lessons learned from Chernobyl disaster will increase safety of existing power plants dramatically.

How dangerous is it?. Below level of Chernobyl and influence is by-and-large local. So it is potentially dangerous to Japanese people in the evacuation zone and, especially, workers at the plant. But is this like Chernobyl? No way (amount of radioactive materials released is many times less; absence of burning graphite is the major difference here). After all Japan is an island nation. Not something in the heart of Europe.

Reaction to radiation like reaction of other types of poisoning is highly individual. Some people who were present in control room in Chernobyl are still alive:

Yuri Korneev, Boris Stolyarchuk and Alexander Yuvchenko are the last surviving members of the Reactor No. 4 shift that was on duty at the moment of the catastrophe. Anatoly Dyatlov, who was in charge of the safety experiment at Reactor No. 4, died in 1995 of a heart attack.

High end estimate of the death rate among people who tried to contain Chernobyl disaster (liquidators) and got high or extremely high doses is 10%. That is not that different from natural death rate.

According to Vyacheslav Grishin of the Chernobyl Union, the main organization of liquidators, “25,000 of the Russian liquidators are dead and 70,000 disabled, about the same in Ukraine, and 10,000 dead in Belarus and 25,000 disabled”, which makes a total of 60,000 dead (10% of the 600 000, liquidators) and 165,000 disabled.[2]

In 2003 there were 6,328,000 car accidents in the US. There were 2.9 million injuries and 42,643 people were killed in auto accidents.

In 2002, there were an estimated 6,316,000 car accidents in the USA. There were about 2.9 million injuries and 42,815 people were killed in auto accidents in 2002.

There were an estimated 6,356,000 car accidents in the US in 2000. There were about 3.2 million injuries and 41,821 people were killed in auto accidents in 2000 based on data collected by the Federal Highway Administration

As far as I know there were no radiation related death cases for this disaster. So irresponsible fear mongering that heats this mass radiophobia hysteria should be avoided.

[Nov 30, 2010] Guest Post BP Controlling University Research, and Professor Who Downplayed Oil Spill Called a “Shill” By Fellow Professor

naked capitalism

A fellow senior sciences professor at Overton’s own LSU, also noted that Overton “does not appear to be an unbiased source of information” and found it laughable that the head of NOAA’s chemical hazard assessment team is purporting to provide public comments as an “independent scientist.”

“I think that Dr. Overton comes across as being an industry shill,” the professor offered bluntly. “He has never said anything that was not in favor of what the industry was saying and continued to minimize the effects from day one about how bad this spill and its effects would be.”

readerOfTeaLeaves:

 Additionally, as professor emeritus, Overton confirmed to Raw Story that he officially retired from LSU and no longer receives a salary from the university; all his income tied to his university association since May 2009 has come through grants and contracts, and mostly through his work for NOAA. The latest NOAA funding for his work was a $1.3 million five-year grant.

Prof. Overton fools himself if he believes that his LSU connections have nothing to do with his ability to obtain funding. Just because he no longer receives an LSU salary does not in any way imply that he no longer benefits from the association. His self-serving excuse does no credit to him.

dan:

So what’s new?

How many financial reports extolling the safety of derivatives or the financial health of whole countries have been written by paid shills from the universities in the U.S.?

Go see the movie “Inside Job” if you get a chance, read Yves or Nomi Prins books. This country is in the hands of traitors and thieves, and the above is just one more in a long line of transgressions that we are letting them get away with.

[Oct 19, 2010] Doubt is Their Product- How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health

John Mashey

I agree with others that this is dense and long, but I think it is well worth reading, even if you skip parts of chapters.

I would especially suggest study of:
Chapter 13: Daubert: the Most Influential Supreme Court Ruling You've Never Heard Of
Chapter 14: The Institutionalization of Uncertainty
[The Data Access Act (Shelby) and the Data Quality Act]

Because:
a) The behaviors of some corporations, PR agencies, product defense organizations can get somewhat redundant. Hill & Knowlton created the tactics 50+ years ago and they've been widely employed.

b) But the legal issues in these two Chapters represent relatively recent…

Read more

[Oct 19, 2010] Merchants of Doubt- How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming

John Mashey

You do know, of course, that the same George C. Marshall Institute (GMI) was a key player in recruiting McKitrick, and then McIntyre. They helped pay for trips to Washington, sponsored talks, coached them, introduced them to Singer, Baliunas, Soon, Michaels ... and James Inhofe. They publicized them. They made them GMI "experts." in 2004. example.

So, if you thought "Merchants" was interesting for the history, see the following, which focuses more on the later years, especially the well-orchestrated attack on the hockey stick and Michael Mann, which started as soon as the IPCC TAR came out.

All this was actually part of strategy organized in 1998 by the American Petroleum Institute, with GMI, CEI, Fred Singer, etc. Follow the funding trails, etc, etc.

http://www.desmogblog.com/crescendo-climategate-cacophony 

[Oct 02, 2010] Tea & Crackers Rolling Stone Politics

Buried deep in the anus of the Bible Belt, in a little place called Petersburg, Kentucky, is one of the world's most extraordinary tourist attractions: the Creation Museum, a kind of natural-history museum for people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old. When you visit this impressively massive monument to fundamentalist Christian thought, you get a mind-blowing glimpse into the modern conservative worldview. One exhibit depicts a half-naked Adam and Eve sitting in the bush, cheerfully keeping house next to dinosaurs — which, according to creationist myth, not only lived alongside humans but were peaceful vegetarians until Adam partook of the forbidden fruit. It's hard to imagine a more telling demonstration of this particular demographic's unmatched ability to believe just about anything.

Even more disturbing is an exhibit designed to show how the world has changed since the Scopes trial eradicated religion from popular culture. Visitors to the museum enter a darkened urban scene full of graffiti and garbage, and through a series of windows view video scenes of families in a state of collapse. A teenager, rolling a giant doobie as his God-fearing little brother looks on in horror, surfs porn on the Web instead of reading the Bible. ("A Wide World of Women!" the older brother chuckles.) A girl stares at her home pregnancy test and says into the telephone, "My parents are not going to know!" As you go farther into the exhibit, you find a wooden door, into which an eerie inscription has been carved: "The World's Not Safe Anymore."

Staff members tell me Rand Paul recently visited the museum after-hours. This means nothing in itself, of course, but it serves as an interesting metaphor to explain Paul's success in Kentucky. The Tea Party is many things at once, but one way or another, it almost always comes back to a campaign against that unsafe urban hellscape of godless liberalism we call our modern world. Paul's platform is ultimately about turning back the clock, returning America to the moment of her constitutional creation, when the federal bureaucracy was nonexistent and men were free to roam the Midwestern plains strip-mining coal and erecting office buildings without wheelchair access. Some people pick on Paul for his humorously extreme back-to-Hobbesian-nature platform (a Louisville teachers' union worker named Bill Allison follows Paul around in a "NeanderPaul" cave-man costume shouting things like "Abolish all laws!" and "BP just made mistakes!"), but it's clear when you talk to Paul supporters that what they dig most is his implicit promise to turn back time, an idea that in Kentucky has some fairly obvious implications.

[Sep 04, 2010] Author Simon Singh Puts Up a Fight in the War on Science Magazine By Robert Capps

August 30, 2010 Wired September 2010

'You have to decide who you trust before you decide what to believe.'
Photo: Donald Milne 

For a while there, things didn’t look too good for British writer Simon Singh. The best-selling author of the science histories Big Bang and Fermat’s Enigma knew he was heading into controversial territory when he switched tracks to cowrite a book investigating alternative medicine, Trick or Treatment? What Singh didn’t count on, however, was that writing a seemingly innocuous article for London’s The Guardian newspaper about especially outrageous chiropractic claims—one of the subjects he researched for the book—would end up threatening his career. The British Chiropractic Association sued Singh, hoping to use Britain’s draconian libel laws to force him to withdraw his statements and issue an apology. Losing the case would have cost Singh both his reputation and a substantial amount of his personal wealth. Such is the state of science, where sometimes even stating simple truths (like the fact that there’s no reliable evidence chiropractic can alleviate asthma in children) can bring the wrath of the antiscience crowd. What the British chiropractors didn’t count on, however, was Singh himself. Having earned a PhD from Cambridge for his work at the Swiss particle physics lab CERN, he wasn’t about to back down from a scientific gunfight. Singh spent more than two years and well over $200,000 of his own money battling the case in court, and this past April he finally prevailed. In the process, he became a hero to those challenging the pseudoscience surrounding everything from global warming to vaccines to evolution. It’s not necessarily a role he sought for himself, but it’s one he has embraced—he’s currently touring the world, talking about his case, libel reform, and how important it is to make sure scientists can speak truthfully and openly. Wired spoke with Singh about his case and the struggle against the forces of irrationality.

Wired: The British Chiropractic Association wanted you to apologize for your Guardian article. Why didn’t you? What would that have meant?

Simon Singh: It would have meant that whenever somebody typed “Simon Singh” into a Web search, it would say, “science journalist found guilty of libel.” People could dismiss anything I’d ever written about alternative medicine. But more important, it would have implied that there is some validity to these claims that chiropractic can help with things like asthma and colic. And that would have an impact on parents and their children. Faced with that, I couldn’t apologize. If you’ve written something that you believe is true, and if you can afford to defend it, then you’ve got to defend it.

Wired: Do you think that this is part of a broader trend? Is science under assault?

Simon Singh: What shocks me is people who have no expertise championing a view that runs counter to the mainstream scientific consensus. For example, we have a consensus amongst the best medical researchers in the world—the leading authorities and the World Health Organization—that vaccines are a good thing, and that MMR, the triple vaccine, is a really good thing. And yet there are people who are quite willing to challenge that consensus—film stars, celebrities, columnists—all of whom rely solely on the tiny little bit of science that seems to back up their view.

Wired: Yet the celebrities sometimes seem to be winning.

Simon Singh: Part of the problem is that if anybody has a gut reaction about an issue, they can go online and have it backed up. That said, they can also find support for their ideas in the mainstream media—because when the mainstream media gives a so-called balanced view, it’s often misleading. The media thinks that because one side says climate change is real and dangerous, the other view is that it’s not real and not dangerous. That doesn’t reflect the fact that something like 98 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and dangerous. And this happens with everything from genetically modified foods to evolution. But, at the end of the day, all that this misinformation does is slow progress—it doesn’t stop it. Antiscientific and pseudoscientific attitudes will get corrected; it’s just a question of how painful that process is going to be.

Wired: Should scientists do more to get real science out there?

Simon Singh: Scientists aren’t necessarily good communicators, because they aren’t trained to be good communicators. A researcher could be doing really important work on global warming, and then somebody writes a column in a national newspaper that completely undermines what they’re saying. But the scientist doesn’t think the column is important—it’s just some nincompoop writing a column—so they don’t take that writer to task in the way they should. It’s a case of saying, “How do we make a difference?” We certainly don’t make a difference by just moaning over coffee the next day.

Wired: What about nonscientists? How are we supposed to know what’s true?

Simon Singh: Don’t come up with a view, find everybody who agrees with it, and then say, “Look at this, I must be right.” Start off by saying, “Who do I trust?” On global warming, for example, I happen to trust climate experts, world academies of science, Nobel laureates, and certain science journalists. You have to decide who you trust before you decide what to believe.

Wired: Why is it so hard to convince people, even when the science is so clear?

Simon Singh: Science has nothing to do with common sense. I believe it was Einstein who said that common sense is a set of prejudices we form by the age of 18. Inject somebody with some viruses and that’s going to keep you from getting sick? That’s not common sense. We evolved from single-cell organisms? That’s not common sense. By driving my car I’m going to cook Earth? None of this is common sense. The commonsense view is what we’re fighting against. So somehow you’ve got to move people away from that with these quite complicated scientific arguments based on even more complicated research. That’s why it’s such an uphill battle. People start off with a belief and a prejudice—we all do. And the job of science is to set that aside to get to the truth.

Articles editor Robert Capps (rcapps@wired.com) wrote about the advantages of “good enough” technology in issue 17.09.

[Sep 04, 2010] Simon Singh Beware the spinal trap

The Guardian

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

I can confidently label these treatments as bogus because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: "Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck."

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Professor Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

Bearing all of this in mind, I will leave you with one message for Chiropractic Awareness Week - if spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

· Simon Singh is the co-author of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial
www.simonsingh.net

This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday April 19 2008 on p26 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:06 on April 19 2008.

[Aug 21, 2010] How Much Debt Does the S&P 500 Have zero hedge

"So true. As a working research scientist I can tell you that people believe scientists wouldn't alter results to advance their careers and receive more funding and recognition. But this is very naive as this happens all the time. Corruption and misuse of funds is rampant especially at large national laboratories where power is concentrated."

Cognitive Dissonance:

It makes me laugh/cry to see that it took them 25 years to come to the conclusion that lease accounting was being abused.

Bruce, the biggest failing we as honest and caring humans have is that we don't (wish to) have the capacity of the psychopathic personality. In other words, because we don't want to be a thief (well maybe not a large one) we don't think like a thief. And while we "know" there are thieves out there, we still approach the world on a daily basis assuming the thieves are only 2 or 3 % of the population.

And you would be correct to think so. OK, maybe 5%. But where we really go off the tracks is in assuming the regulators are at least trying to do their job. This is where we are raped and pillaged.

There is no reason for the regulators to be as incompetent and incapable as they consistently are unless it's intended to be this way. It's that simple. And there are hundreds of ways for the powers that be to place roadblock after roadblock in front of the regulators while still making it look like they aren't doing so. Why do you think the recent finreg bill was over 2,000 pages long?

The entire concept of regulators is that they are there simply to keep the honest people coming back to the dice table and the thieves coming to the same table to take advantage of the honest people. The regulators are there to keep selected competition out of "the game" as well as to look the other way when "da playas" are at the table. No more, no less.

Thus if the regulators are just now "discovering" something 25 years later, it's clear that "da playas" have a new game in town and they need to fleece the last of the honest money one more time and then make sure their enemies......er....irritating mosquitoes are caught and locked up for playing a game that's being retired soon for the next best thing.

Pardon my cynical slip for showing.

Mitchman

CD, in this case, the regulators are actually following the rules to the letter. Most lease accounting in the US is based on FASB 13 which, I believe dates back to the late 1950's or early 1960's. Everyone is going by the book in this case and although there have been some attempts at changing the rules, they have been half-hearted, partially because everyone has felt that the rules of the game have been working so well for everyone involved.

Cognitive Dissonance:

I agree. Let me quote myself from above.

And there are hundreds of ways for the powers that be to place roadblock after roadblock in front of the regulators while still making it look like they aren't doing so. Why do you think the recent finreg bill was over 2,000 pages long?

I agree, in this case everyone's going by the book because the book is written to allow the thieving. Oh sure, there really are rules and regs to keep things from completely getting out of hand. After all, there must be rules. BUT the rules are written to favor the few at the expense of the many. And without being insulting in the least to you my friend, most people can't see this fact because they are immersed in the game.

They know the rules so well and have been around it for so long that it all just makes sense. But pull average Joe in off the street or ask a passing space alien what he (she? it?) thinks about the "system" and they will respond in short order with a common consensus.

Rigged. And the regulators are part of the rigged game.

Mitchman :

I di not take it as an insult my dear friend and especially from such a lofty commentator as yourself. (BTW, happy anniversary!). My point was that the rules were written at a point in time when corporate leverage was not the issue that it is today. Remember that in say, 1959, securitization didn't exist. So taking a lease off the balance sheet didn't seem like such a big problem. I might also point out that under international accounting rules, where the auditor's judgment counts a great deal more than it does here in the US, taking a lease obligation off the balance sheet is much more difficult. Here in the US, under the old FASB 13, it was much easier to "game" the system. Thereby further proving your point.

Cheers.

Cognitive Dissonance:

Thereby further proving your point.

And well as yours. The more I pull back to bring the big picture into focus, the more my stomach turns. I fully understand why so many seek drink, drug or other diversions to kill the pain of the ugly truth. Unfortunately it will only change when people begin to talk about the painful truths they so desperately try to avoid. Part of our conditioning is to avoid talking about our conditioning.

Have a good weekend.

Bartanist

As a culture we tend to distance ourselves from people who speak the truth because we would rather live with a known lie than to invite an uncomfortable conflict and a resolution that might hurt the liar. Odd, no?

I recall a weeklong exec financial education trip to Wharton back in the mid-90s. One of the case studies was of Marriott corporation which at the time had superior earnings based on their degree of leverage. The lesson for us was not that we could have a more profitable company with greater leverage, but that there is greater and unreasonable risk associated with leverage.

I guess the financial engineers figure that one out. Create companies that were too big and too connected to the power structure to be allowed to fail and have the saps, errr I mean people, absorb the risk. Problem solved! Superior earnings and no risk.

Cognitive Dissonance

As a culture we tend to distance ourselves from people who speak the truth because we would rather live with a known lie than to invite an uncomfortable conflict and a resolution that might hurt the liar. Odd, no?

Precisely. And also why I selected Cognitive Dissonance as my ID. Because the funny thing about denial is that while we may be (sub)consciously pushing away the pain and dissonance, in the background, our subconscious mind is absorbing everything.

So when the time comes for the student to wake, the teacher will already be present in the form of subconscious knowledge and understanding coming to the surface to be transferred into the conscious awareness. And this often happens (relatively) quicker if there are subliminal reminders of our dissonance present.

Hence my ID.

Odd, no? :>)

Bartanist:

I would say, "In a minority, yes" .... Odd? Not to me. I think there will come a time when people will need people who have not been dead or asleep to help them with the new reality.

AssFire

The mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The unease or tension that the conflict arouses in a person is relieved by one of several defensive maneuvers: the person rejects, explains away, or avoids the new information, persuades himself that no conflict really exists, reconciles the differences, or resorts to any other defensive means of preserving stability or order in his conception of the world and of himself. The concept, first introduced in the 1950s, has become a major point of discussion and research.

Man, I should have selected my ID with a bit more thought.

NotApplicable:

I'm amazed at how I can talk to anyone about corruption inside of some institution that they have personal knowledge about, yet they never extrapolate this corruption out to other institutions. Since they have no personal knowledge of them, they simply trust their faith, because they cannot stand to know the alternative, that we are all fucked.

Bartanist :

The vast majority of people have been brainwashed when young and impressionable to believe that should spend their lives striving to be accepted within the power circle... or at least a well compensated slave (although they do not envision it that way at the time).

Without getting into the extremely esoteric, there is nothing finite about the system that we are living within. Rules are only rules for those that believe them to be rules and do not have the power to ignore them. Is this right? IMO, it is neither right or wrong, but only a means to an end. While the people on this board might be discussing the injustice of something, somewhere in the world there are people discussing larger problems about how to manage the entire herd of humans, somewhere else in the world there are people dying from thirst or starvation and in another part of the world people don't give a damn about materialism and are trying to figure it all out to connect their 3 halves.

Sure, I believe in honesty, personal freedom and treating others with respect. I believe in questioning, understanding doing something about it and growing. Do I really need a financial prison (err system) to help me do that? Probably not. Have I got so much invested in my first 50+ years within the system that it is damn hard to find my way out. You betcha. These prison bars are made of velvet and excrete vodka on the rocks (with an olive) and a nice juicy steak cooked to perfection.

John_Coltrane:

So true. As a working research scientist I can tell you that people believe scientists wouldn't alter results to advance their careers and receive more funding and recognition. But this is very naive as this happens all the time. Corruption and misuse of funds is rampant especially at large national laboratories where power is concentrated.

Book Review 'The Republican War on Science,' by Chris Mooney

New York Times

Mooney's critique has understandably annoyed some of his colleagues. In a review in The Washington Post, the journalist Keay Davidson faults Mooney for not acknowledging how hard it can be to distinguish good science from bad. Philosophers call this the "demarcation problem." Demarcation can indeed be difficult, especially if all the scientists involved are trying in good faith to get at the truth, and Mooney does occasionally imply that demarcation consists simply of checking scientists' party affiliations. But in many of the cases that he examines, demarcation is easy, because one side has an a priori commitment to something other than the truth - God or money, to put it bluntly.

Conservative complaints about federally financed "junk science" may ultimately prove self-fulfilling. Government scientists - and those who receive federal funds - may toe the party line to avoid being punished like the whistleblower Andy Eller (who was rehired last June after he sued for wrongful termination). Increasingly, competent scientists will avoid public service, degrading the quality of advice to policy makers and the public still further. Together, these trends threaten "not just our public health and the environment," Mooney warns, "but the very integrity of American democracy, which relies heavily on scientific and technical expertise to function." If this assessment sounds one-sided, so is the reality that it describes

[Aug 09, 2010]   The Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney

From Book Review 'The Republican War on Science,' by Chris Mooney - New York Times " This episode makes me more sympathetic than I might otherwise have been to "The Republican War on Science" by the journalist Chris Mooney. As the title indicates, Mooney's book is a diatribe, from start to finish. The prose is often clunky and clichéd, and it suffers from smug, preaching-to-the-choir self-righteousness. But Mooney deserves a hearing in spite of these flaws, because he addresses a vitally important topic and gets it basically right.
Mooney charges George Bush and other conservative Republicans with "science abuse," which he defines as "any attempt to inappropriately undermine, alter or otherwise interfere with the scientific process, or scientific conclusions, for political or ideological reasons." Science abuse is not an exclusively right-wing sin, Mooney acknowledges. He condemns Greenpeace for exaggerating the risks of genetically modified "Frankenfoods," animal-rights groups for dismissing the medical benefits of research on animals and John Kerry for overstating the potential of stem cells during his presidential run. " ... "One simple strategy involves filling federal positions on the basis of ideology rather than genuine expertise."

NEARLY FORTY YEARS AGO, in 1966, two talented young political thinkers published an extraordinary book, one that reads, in retrospect, as a profound warning to the Republican Party that went tragically unheeded.

The authors had been roommates at Harvard University, and had participated in the Ripon Society, an upstart group of Republican liberals. They had worked together on Advance, dubbed “the unofficial Republican magazine,” which slammed the party from within for catering to segregationists, John Birchers, and other extremists. Following their graduation, both young men moved into the world of journalism and got the chance to further advance their “progressive” Republican campaign in a book for the eminent publisher Alfred A. Knopf. In their spirited 1966 polemic The Party That Lost Its Head, they held nothing back. The book devastatingly critiqued Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy—the modern conservative movement’s primal scene—and dismissed the GOP’s embrace of rising star Ronald Reagan as the party’s hope to “usurp reality with the fading world of the class-B movie.“

Read today, some of the most prophetic passages of The Party That Lost Its Head are those that denounce Goldwater’s conservative backers for their rampant and even paranoid distrust of the nation’s intellectuals. The book labels the Goldwater campaign a “brute assault on the entire intellectual world” and blames this development on a woefully wrongheaded political tactic: “In recent years the Republicans as a party have been alienating intellectuals deliberately, as a matter of taste and strategy.“

The authors charge that Goldwater’s campaign had no intellectual heft behind it whatsoever, save the backing of one think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, which they denounce as “an organization heavily financed by extreme rightists.” Continuing in the same vein, they slam William F. Buckley, Jr., for his attacks on leading universities and describe the advent of right-wing anti-intellectualism as “crippling” to the Republican Party. The book further deplores conservatives’ paranoid distrust of the “liberal” media and the “Eastern Establishment,” and worries that without the backing of intellectuals and scholars, the GOP will prove unable to develop “workable programs, distinct from those of the Democrats and responsive to national problems.” If the party wants to win back the “national consensus,” the authors argue, it must first win back the nation’s intellectuals.

Clearly, The Party That Lost Its Head failed in its goal of prompting a broad Republican realignment. The GOP went in precisely the opposite direction from the one these young authors prescribed—which is why the anti-intellectual disposition they so aptly diagnosed in 1966 still persists among many modern conservatives, helping to fuel the current crisis over the politicization of science and expertise. In fact, the chief difference between the Goldwater conservatives and those of today can often seem more cosmetic than real. A massive number of think tanks have now joined the American Enterprise Institute on the right, but in many cases these outlets still provide only a thin veneer of intellectual respectability to ideas that mainstream scholarship rejects.

Certainly, the proliferation of think tanks has not had as a corollary that conservatives now take scientific expertise more seriously. On the contrary, the Right has a strong track record of deliberately attempting to undermine scientific work that might threaten the economic interests of private industry. Perhaps more alarmingly still, similar tactics have also been brought to bear by the Right in the service of a religiously conservative cultural and moral agenda.

The next three chapters demonstrate how cultural conservatives have disregarded, distorted, and abused science on the issues of evolution, embryonic stem cell research, the relation of abortion to health risks for women, and sex education. In the process, we will encounter more ideologically driven think tanks, more questionable science, and more conservative politicians willing to embrace it.

The story begins, however, with a narrative that cuts to the heart of the modern Right’s war on science. You see, despite the poignant accuracy of their critique, the authors of The Party That Lost Its Head—Bruce K. Chapman and George Gilder—have since bitten their tongues and morphed from liberal Republicans into staunch conservatives. In fact, you could say that they have become everything they once criticized. Once opponents of right-wing anti-intellectualism, they are now prominent supporters of conservative attacks on the theory of evolution, not just a bedrock of modern science but one of the greatest intellectual achievements of human history. With this transformation, the modern Right’s war on intellectuals—including scientists and those possessing expertise in other areas—is truly complete.

Paul Krugman: Who Cooked the Planet?

Economist's View

Why did climate change legislation fail?:

Who Cooked the Planet?, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Never say that the gods lack a sense of humor. I bet they’re still chuckling on Olympus over the decision to make the first half of 2010 — the year in which all hope of action to limit climate change died — the hottest such stretch on record. ...
So why didn’t climate-change legislation get through the Senate? Let’s talk first about what didn’t cause the failure, because there have been many attempts to blame the wrong people.
First of all, we didn’t fail to act because of legitimate doubts about the science. Every piece of valid evidence ... points to a continuing, and quite possibly accelerating, rise in global temperatures.
Nor is this evidence tainted by scientific misbehavior. You’ve probably heard about the accusations leveled against climate researchers —... “Climategate,” and so on. What you may not have heard, because it has received much less publicity, is that every one of these supposed scandals was eventually unmasked as a fraud concocted by opponents of climate action...
Did reasonable concerns about the economic impact of climate legislation block action? No. ... All serious estimates suggest that we could phase in limits on greenhouse gas emissions with at most a small impact on the economy’s growth rate.
So it wasn’t the science, the scientists, or the economics that killed action on climate change. What was it?
The answer is, the usual suspects: greed and cowardice.
If you want to understand opposition to climate action, follow the money. The economy as a whole wouldn’t be significantly hurt if we put a price on carbon, but certain industries — above all, the coal and oil industries — would. And those industries have mounted a huge disinformation campaign to protect their bottom lines.
Look at the scientists who question the consensus on climate change; look at the organizations pushing fake scandals; look at the think tanks claiming that any effort to limit emissions would cripple the economy. Again and again, you’ll find that they’re on the receiving end of a pipeline of funding that starts with big energy companies, like Exxon Mobil, which has spent tens of millions of dollars promoting climate-change denial, or Koch Industries, which has been sponsoring anti-environmental organizations for two decades.
Or look at the politicians who have been most vociferously opposed to climate action. Where do they get much of their campaign money? You already know the answer.
By itself, however, greed wouldn’t have triumphed. It needed the aid of cowardice — above all, the cowardice of politicians who know how big a threat global warming poses, who supported action in the past, but who deserted their posts at the crucial moment.
There are a number of such climate cowards, but let me single out one in particular: Senator John McCain.
There was a time when Mr. McCain was considered a friend of the environment. Back in 2003 he burnished his maverick image by co-sponsoring legislation that would have created a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions. He reaffirmed support for such a system during his presidential campaign, and things might look very different now if he had continued to back climate action once his opponent was in the White House. But he didn’t — and it’s hard to see his switch as anything other than the act of a man willing to sacrifice his principles, and humanity’s future, for the sake of a few years added to his political career.
Alas, Mr. McCain wasn’t alone; and there will be no climate bill. Greed, aided by cowardice, has triumphed. And the whole world will pay the price.

BP accused of 'buying academic silence'

BBC News

The head of the American Association of Professors has accused BP of trying to "buy" the best scientists and academics to help its defence against litigation after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

"This is really one huge corporation trying to buy faculty silence in a comprehensive way," said Cary Nelson.

BP faces more than 300 lawsuits so far.

In a statement, BP says it has hired more than a dozen national and local scientists "with expertise in the resources of the Gulf of Mexico".

The BBC has obtained a copy of a contract offered to scientists by BP. It says that scientists cannot publish the research they do for BP or speak about the data for at least three years, or until the government gives the final approval to the company's restoration plan for the whole of the Gulf.

It also states scientists may perform research for other agencies as long as it does not conflict with the work they are doing for BP.

And it adds that scientists must take instructions from lawyers offering the contracts and other in-house counsel at BP.

Bob Shipp, the head of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama, was one of the scientists approached by BP's lawyers.

They didn't just want him, they wanted his whole department.

"They contacted me and said we would like to have your department interact to develop the best restoration plan possible after this oil spill," he said.

"We laid the ground rules - that any research we did, we would have to take total control of the data, transparency and the freedom to make those data available to other scientists and subject to peer review. They left and we never heard back from them."

What Mr Nelson is concerned about is BP's control over scientific research.

"Our ability to evaluate the disaster and write public policy and make decisions about it as a country can be impacted by the silence of the research scientists who are looking at conditions," he said.

"It's hugely destructive. I mean at some level, this is really BP versus the people of the United States."

In its statement, BP says it "does not place restrictions on academics speaking about scientific data".

'Powerful economic interests'

But New Orleans environmental lawyer Joel Waltzer looked over the contract and said BP's statement did not match up.

Continue reading the main story

“Start Quote

Good scientists, they're going to be giving their opinions based on the facts and they are not going to bias their opinions”

End Quote Professor Irv Mendelssohn Louisiana State University

"They're the ones who control the process. They're depriving the public of the data and the transparency that we all deserve."

But some scientists who have been approached by lawyers acting on behalf of BP are willing to sign up.

Irv Mendelssohn is a professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University.

"What I'm doing wouldn't be any different than if I was consulting with one of the natural resource trustees. I am giving my objective opinion about recovery."

Some scientists approached by BP lawyers have been offered as much as $250 an hour.

Prof Mendelssohn says he would negotiate his normal consulting fee, which is between $150 and $300 an hour. But he says that is not why he is doing it.

"Good scientists, they're going to be giving their opinions based on the facts and they are not going to bias their opinions. What's most important is credibility."

But Cary Nelson is concerned about the relationship between corporations and academia.

"There is a problem for a faculty member who becomes closely associated with a corporation with such powerful financial interests.

"My advice would be: think twice before you sign a contract with a corporation that has such powerful economic interests at stake."

[Jul 07, 2010] Barbie does economics by  James Montier

The sheer hubris of many in the economics profession never ceases to amaze me. Take for instance a recent paper by Kartik Athreya of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond[1] entitled “Economics is Hard. Don’t let Bloggers Tell You Otherwise”. In a move that is eerily reminiscent of the controversial talking Barbie of the early 1990s who fatefully uttered “Math class is tough”[2], Athreya’s short paper essentially lays out a quite staggering claim :- that economics should be left to those with a PhD in the subject!

Athreya describes himself as “a worker bee chipping away with known tools”. He goes on to say “writers who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department…cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy”[3]. You’ve got to love the ‘decent’ in that sentence – it wreaks of intellectual snobbishness of the highest order.

In fact, Athreya’s ire isn’t limited to what she sees as uninformed debate, he seems to object to anyone who attempts to make the policy issues of the day clear even if they have a PhD. He pejoratively describes both Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong as “Patron saints of the Macroeconomic Policy is Easy” movement.

He argues that we won’t expect particularly informed discussion on the causes, consequences and treatments for cancer from non-Oncology specialists, so why we would we expect non-specialists to offer any useful debate on economics.

However, the analogy is false. Modern medicine is based on scientific principles and follows an evidence based approach. Even then some estimate that the majority of published findings in medical journals are false[4]!

Economics starts from a far worse place. It isn’t a science, and often seems more interested in twisting the facts to fit a theory rather than the other way around. In fact, as Nassim Taleb has pointed out, economics is more akin to medieval medicine than its current practice, “Medicine used to kill more patients than it saved – just as financial economics endangers the system by creating, not reducing, risk.[5]

The idea that what we need is more ‘worker bees’ gaining their PhD’s from conducting ‘angels on a pin head’ like work based on minor alterations to previous research makes me want to cry. Where were the warnings from the orthodox economics establishment ahead of the global financial crisis? Oh, that’s right there weren’t any.

Indeed many of those who warned of the problems ahead did so because they weren’t constrained by the kind of training that an economics PhD suffers. I did my own training in economics a long time ago now, it included a fair amount of equation bending but I was incredibly fortunate that it included generalist topics such as Marxian and post-Keynesian economics, subjects that are oddly absent from the vast majority of syllabi.

In many ways economics as it exists today is largely a victim of learned helplessness - a phenomenon was first documented by Martin Seligman in the 1960s. He was working with dogs (dog lovers look away now) and studying conditioning when he came across something interesting. Seligman was subjecting pairs of dogs to nondamaging but painful electric shocks. However, in each pair of dogs one animal could put an end to the shock by simply pressing the side panels of its container with its head. The other dog was unable to turn off the shock. The electricity was synchronized, starting at the same point for both dogs, and obviously ending when the dog with the control turned off the power.

This gave the each of the pairs of dogs a very different experience. One experienced the pain as controllable, while the other did not. The dogs which had no control soon began to cower and whine (signs of doggy depression) even after the sessions had stopped. The dogs which could control the shocks showed no signs of this behaviour.

In the second phase of the experiments dogs were placed in box with a low wall separating the container into two. One side (the side on which the dog started) was electrified. To avoid the pain the dog simply had to jump the low wall. The dogs which had controlled the shocks in the first round quickly learned to jump the wall. However, the around two-thirds of the dogs who had no control in the first round, simply laid down and suffered the pain, they had learned to become helpless.

Modern day economics is much like these poor animals. Many economists have learnt to become helpless. They would rather lay down and whimper and whine about how unfair the world is, and mutter that everything would be alright if only people behaved like their models, than seek to look outside the narrow confines of their obsession with rationality and mathematics to see if others might just have some useful insight.

The age of the specialist (people who learn more and more about less and less, until they know absolutely everything about nothing) has proved to have some fundamental flaws. Three cheers for the generalists!

[1] http://www.scribd.com/doc/33655771/Economics-is-Hard
[2] For more on the weird and wonderful versions of Barbie that have graced the shelves over the years see http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/parenting/11-bad-barbie-ideas-1312923/?pg=8
[3] Atherya does have the sense to point out “Taken literally, I am almost certainly wrong.”
[4] John Ioannidis (2005) Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. PLoS Med 2(8): e124. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
[5] Taleb (2007) The pseudo science hurting markets, Financial Times, 23 October 2007

[May 30, 2010]   "The Impact of the Irrelevant on Decision-Making"

Bloggers (and Jon Stewart) need help:

The Impact of the Irrelevant on Decision-Making, by Robert H. Frank, Commentary, NY Times: Textbook economic models assume that people are well informed about all the options they’re considering. It’s an absurd claim... Even so, when people confront opportunities to improve their position, they’re generally quick to seize them. ... So most economists are content with a slightly weaker assumption: that people respond in approximately rational ways to the information available to them.

But behavioral research now challenges even that more limited claim. For example, even patently false or irrelevant information often affects choices in significant ways. ...

Lafayette :

PRETTY SILLY

{So most economists are content with a slightly weaker assumption: that people respond in approximately rational ways to the information available to them. }

No, not even this is adequate. More so, it does not justify the use of Disposable Income, aka Consumer Demand. (If you don't know why this is important, than maybe you are in the wrong blog?)

People's decision making can be tweaked around the irrational - and easily so. Impulse buying is one such tweaking that marketing experts employ with amazing usefulness. When you arrive at the check-out of a supermarket, why is there an array of sweets available for your delight. Or the latest "People" journal? Why aren't these products in their proper section? (Two reasons actually, the first of which is that they are "impulse purchases" and secondly they could otherwise likely go unnoticed.)

Thus, impulse and not rational propel you to purchase them - and this is just the simplest of examples.

Conspicuous Consumption has the same motivation that propels one to buy a Beemer or lunch at the most expensive restaurant in town. One MUST be seen only in the right places. Are these impulses rational?

Some would say yes, particularly if they lived in Hollywood, where they are conforming to a lifestyle that is all appearance and little substance. But what is their economic utility as consumption? That is considerably more difficult to substantiate.

(Far more so than, say, a Public Option for decent national Health Care insurance.)

Thus arises the pitfall of economic rationalization as regards our motivations that propel Demand. It ennobles mankind to assume that individual decisions were based uniquely upon logic and rationale. But, alas, those are not the only attributes underlying human decision making. There are others far more base that also propel us to demonstrate some pretty silly consumer behaviour.
 

[May 29, 2010] Attacking Science to Defend Beliefs

While I can agree with the main thrust of the argument; to label as science the on-and-off-again twenty year Anglo-Saxon campaign to kill the Euro is quixotic at best even if recently this campaign has been leaving some dark blue marks across the eurozone’s face. One area where I still hold suspicions though are the Dutch and German banks who bought all that subprime crap from Wall Street. Were they really just stupid euro-country bumpkins or was it more than that? The jury is still out on that one.
May 29, 2010 | naked capitalism

A disconcerting tendency that may also impair adaptability (and this seems to be particularly pronounced in the US) is the tendency to engage in black and white thinking. If (in someone’s mind) the only alternative to one view is its polar opposite, that makes it hard to adjust one’s perspective.

Ars technica presents a more specific example of this phenomenon, of how people defend their mental models in the face of confounding evidence. A study from the Journal of Applied Social Psychology looked into some of the mechanisms that individuals use to reject scientific information that is at odds with their views. Admittedly, this is a small scale study, so one has to be cautious in generalizing from it. But it does seem consistent with some of the strategies I routinely seem in comments.

From ars technica:

It’s hardly a secret that large segments of the population choose not to accept scientific data because it conflicts with their predefined beliefs: economic, political, religious, or otherwise. But many studies have indicated that these same people aren’t happy with viewing themselves as anti-science, which can create a state of cognitive dissonance. That has left psychologists pondering the methods that these people use to rationalize the conflict.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology takes a look at one of these methods, which the authors term “scientific impotence”—the decision that science can’t actually address the issue at hand properly. It finds evidence that not only supports the scientific impotence model, but suggests that it could be contagious. Once a subject has decided that a given topic is off limits to science, they tend to start applying the same logic to other issues…

Munro polled a set of college students about their feelings about homosexuality, and then exposed them to a series of generic scientific abstracts that presented evidence that it was or wasn’t a mental illness (a control group read the same abstracts with nonsense terms in place of sexual identities). By chance, these either challenged or confirmed the students’ preconceptions. The subjects were then given the chance to state whether they accepted the information in the abstracts and, if not, why not.

Regardless of whether the information presented confirmed or contradicted the students’ existing beliefs, all of them came away from the reading with their beliefs strengthened. As expected, a number of the subjects that had their beliefs challenged chose to indicate that the subject was beyond the ability of science to properly examine. This group then showed a weak tendency to extend that same logic to other areas, like scientific data on astrology and herbal remedies.

A second group went through the same initial abstract-reading process, but were then given an issue to research (the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to violent crime), and offered various sources of information on the issue. The group that chose to discount scientific information on the human behavior issue were more likely than their peers to evaluate nonscientific material when it came to making a decision about the death penalty.

Yves here. I’m not certain whether the authors are being tongue in cheek in this section:

….it might explain why doubts about mainstream science seem to travel in packs. For example, the Discovery Institute, famed for hosting a petition that questions our understanding of evolution, has recently taken up climate change as an additional issue (they don’t believe the scientific community on that topic, either). The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine is best known for hosting a petition that questions the scientific consensus on climate change, but the people who run it also promote creationism and question the link between HIV and AIDS.

Yves again. It is worth considering whether some of this “science can’t evaluate this area” meme exists is at least in part because it is being marketed. Perhaps I lead a cloistered life, but when I was younger, say 20 years ago, I can’t recall encountering this line of argument.

The book Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance gives a detailed account of how the tobacco industry first tried to keep research about smoking-related cancers out of the public eye, and when that started to fail, to attack the science (”Doubt is our product”). One of its late-stage techniques was to promote the idea that the topic wasn’t settled when a tally of the then-available research would say otherwise. Given that knowledge is often the product of political and cultural battles, promoting higher-order anti-science ideas (”science has very considerable limits, there are a lot of areas outside its ken”) gives those who would seek to reshape mass opinion more freedom of action.

Selected Comments

attempter:

For instance, early in the days of euro wobbliness, some readers in Europe would go a bit off the deep end at the suggestion that the Eurozone has serious structural weaknesses and that the austerity regimes required of the deficit countries looked unattainable (and even if they could be met, success would be a Pyrrhic victory). It wasn’t so much that these readers found weaknesses or shortcomings in the post; it’s that its conclusion was clearly deeply offensive to them.

Yes, it’s true that many people find the proposition morally deeply repulsive that the non-rich, already beleaguered by job destruction and the shredding of the safety net, should be crushed by “austerity” in order that the banks can be bailed out and the rich can continue evading taxes, such that even if there were reason to believe this course of action would bring broad prosperity 20 years from now they’d still reject the idea.

Of course neoliberalism has been dominant for c. 40 years now, and that broad “prosperity” remains just as much a vapor on the horizon today as it ever was, except to the extent that a debt ponzi scheme could temporarily prop up a version of it.

The fact is that we know by now, empirically, that neoliberalism’s version of the “sacrifice today so we’ll have utopia tomorrow” lie is the exact same Big Lie as when any other ideology or regime told it. We know for a fact that prosperity will never “trickle down”, and that it was never intended to trickle down.

So by now anyone who rejects the predatory prescriptions of the kleptocracy is acting based on the overwhelming evidence, therefore “scientifically” for purposes of this discussion, while anyone who still retains faith in trickle down is truly mired in a cult fundamentalist mindset.

So much for the proposition that broad-based prosperity can be attained by continuing down the neoliberal path. As for whether exponential debt can be forever zombified under any circumstances, let alone whether reality-based growth could ever again be attained, it’s the physics of energy which says No, while the cornucopianism of debt and energy is always reduced in the end to the religious proposition, “technology will save us; technology will always find a way”.

So there too, whatever emotions may go into the skeptical mindset, science is not on the side of the pollyannas.

Technology did not in fact find much of a way (by modern standards) prior to the fossil fuel age, and a scientifically sober mindset would start with the theory that it will not be able to sustain anything like this level of energy consumption and massive, top-heavy, high-impact centralization post-Peak Oil.

And then there’s every other resource limitation. There’s the stark unreality of the very concept of exponential growth. Really, it’s hard to imagine a less scientific mindset than that which believes there’s a way to “grow” out of this already absurdly unsustainable predicament.

JimS :

I think there is a difference between being anti-science with a small “s” and being anti-Science with a capital “S”. Few would argue that 2+2=4, but theoretical physicists seem to be evenly divided on string theory. Paradoxically the bigger the picture is, the more binary the beliefs. This is not due to disagreement with the data points but with the underlying principles. Consider the following familiar exchange:

Student: “I’ve run the regression analysis, and here is my model.”

Professor: “Very good, but are you sure you’ve identified all the variables that might be significant?”

People don’t question individual mechanisms; it’s whether or not the right mechanisms are being accounted for. In that sense the datum is irrelevant.

What do skeptics and good scientists have in common? They both question if all the significant variables have been found.

As for denial, well, people are fundamentally irrational–that is to say we are only rational to a certain point–but on top of that we’re less educated. A friend of mine observes that he learned debate in school, but not logic from which to debate. It seems to me that education is more formulaic these days, sacrificing critical thinking (even though all text books have those grey-background “critical thinking” boxes).

For the record, as a Christian I do not find God and evolution to be mutually exclusive; nor God and quantum physics for that matter. Can God bake a potato so hot that He can’t eat it? Is Schrödinger’s cat dead or alive?

Kevin de Bruxelles:

While I can agree with the main thrust of the argument; to label as science the on-and-off-again twenty year Anglo-Saxon campaign to kill the Euro is quixotic at best even if recently this campaign has been leaving some dark blue marks across the eurozone’s face. The fact is economics is nothing more than religion. And sure, like most religions it certainly contains some nuggets of wisdom. But to pretend that economics and the recent attacks on the euro has anything approaching objectivity is quickly proven wrong by the fact that similar data points in the US or UK are handled differently. For example where are the outcries of the break-up of the dollarzone since California and other US states are imposing austerity programs? Should the mid-western states that have growing ghost towns break off a hillbilly dollar? When the euro goes up it is a sign of disaster, when the euro goes down it is also a sign of disaster. When European trade increases it is called “beggar thy neighbour”; but when the eurozone by its very nature does not allow “beggar thy neighbour” between its members it is called an suboptimal currency area.

According to Robert Nozick, one cannot have knowledge of something if one does not accept that the opposite could also be true. For the eurozone critics it would go like this:

1.Statement Y: The eurozone is doomed to failure

2.Person X believes Y (the eurozone is doomed to failure)

3.If Y were false (the eurozone were not doomed to failure), Person X would accept the eurozone is viable if it were so.

4.If statement Y is true, Person Y would believe it.

Nozick uses the example of a father who “knows” his son is innocent of a crime. After the trial the father cannot really say he “knew” his son was innocent since if the kid had been found guilty he would still have believed him innocent. The same is true of some eurozone critics; they have “known” the eurozone would fail and they will keep on knowing it until the day it eventually happens, one way or the other. They can never accept that the eurozone could survive because this would blunt the force of their attacks. But this doesn’t mean that their critiques are false. For example some critics quite correctly point out that the European financial architecture is flawed. But the second anyone moves towards correcting any flaws, these critics will immediately scream about eurozone fascism. The point is that the many of the attacks are only meant to help bring the eurozone down. Other onslaughts against the euro are by the mouthpieces of Anglo-Saxon elites who are more concerned that European style social democracy never again raise its head in the US. They were scared by the recent health care debate where America’s unjust and inefficient health care system was openly compared to the more advanced and fair European systems. Anyone who knows how well the rich in America are cared for can understand why they don’t want to share any of their advantages with any other social class. The next time any American compares their social benefits to Europe they will be slapped down by the fact that the Euro has obviously collapsed all the way back to the midpoint of its historic value range.

No the battle of the Euro cannot be studied by science any more than the Eastern Front in WW2 could be. The way it has to be studied is as a power struggle.

And as a media campaign the only comparison in recent memory was the wall of noise heard before the invasion of Iraq. The only remaining question is which Anglo-Saxon economist will get to play Colin Powell and make the requisite speech before the UN giving Europe an ultimatum to dismantle the eurozone? And yes some euro-symps lash out and get angry by these insistent attacks on the euro. And this is understandable since arguably the eurozone’s recent troubles started when European banks started barebacking loads of infected American subprime paper from their Wall Street beaus. In more vulgar terms the US has given Europe the financial equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease and now as the eurozone’s sores and scabs become more apparent the Anglo-Saxon press is shouting with glee about what a skanky debt-ho Europe is! And as a result of the growing Anglo-Saxon infection Europe’s financial immune system is weakening and has to undergo some pretty drastic procedures, the shaming and ridicule has risen to a fever pitch.

But while outrage is understandable, people in Europe really need to put their energy into counterattacks and building defences while always understanding that the most natural thing in the world is for the powerful Anglo-Saxons to attack the less powerful Europeans. Thucydides described it well in the Melian Dialogue. The more powerful Athenians decided they were going to invade the island of Melos. They sent a delegation there to convince the local leaders to surrender. One of the arguments they used was:

For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences- either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us- and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

In the end the Melians declined to surrender and they were subsequently overrun by the Athenians, who killed all the men, and raped some and enslaved all of the women and children.

So Europe has to decide whether it will stand up and fight for the Euro or weakly submit to the Anglo-Saxon attacks. European energy should not go into being outraged by the attacks on the eurozone since this reeks of naivety. Better that the hard decisions be taken. Since WW2 Europe has played the undisciplined child to the US’ parental role. Since Europe is still more or less living under the US’ roof is it wrong for the US to call the shots like abandoning the Euro? Is Europe ready to finally grow up, become fully independent move out and the US’s comfortable and protective house? It will be questions like this, not science, that will decide if the eurozone survives or not.

For example what would be the best European counterattack to the Anglo-Saxon onslaught? Exporting deflation? Perhaps. Which of the main global economic blocks is balanced and stable enough to come through a good bout of deflation? The US – never. China – hardly. Japan – perhaps. Europe – probably.

[Feb 18, 2010] Economist's View Friedman Scientists Should Fight Back

Feb 17, 2010 | Economist's View

Thomas Friedman calls for scientists to go on the offensive against climate change deniers and skeptics:

Global Weirding Is Here, by Thomas Friedman, Commentary, NYTimes: Of the festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics, surely the silliest is the argument that because Washington is having a particularly snowy winter it proves that climate change is a hoax and, therefore, we need not bother with all this girly-man stuff like renewable energy, solar panels and carbon taxes. Just drill, baby, drill.
When you see lawmakers like Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina tweeting that “it is going to keep snowing until Al Gore cries ‘uncle,’ ” or news that the grandchildren of Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma are building an igloo next to the Capitol with a big sign that says “Al Gore’s New Home,” you really wonder if we can have a serious discussion about the climate-energy issue anymore.
The climate-science community is not blameless. It knew it was up against formidable forces... Therefore, climate experts can’t leave themselves vulnerable by citing non-peer-reviewed research or failing to respond to legitimate questions, some of which happened with both the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Selected comments

bakho:

Until the media starts shining a light on the wealthy special interests behind the disinformation campaign, the public will continue to be confused. It is always more difficult for people to relearn than it is to teach for the first time. The huge amount of money spent on disinformation is a problem that climate change experts cannot overcome on their own.

anne:

While the politically motivated bashers of scientists in general and climate scientists especially have been continually at work distorting the findings of scientists and undermining a sense of confidence in the way we approach the findings of scientists, there has been a remarkable political reticience to teach about the nature of what scientists have been finding and to openly support scientists.

President Obama has in no way meaningfully supported the finding of climatologists, and the result will be meaningful climate change legislation which could already have been shaped and passed will be almost impossible to shape and pass this year.

Peter:

Thomas "we have six months to act in Iraq" (in continuous time!) Friedman thinks the American public can comprehend a scientific argument, e.g., one that depends on the correct understanding of statistical significance. Now that's a LOL.
 

[Aug 28, 2009] Darwin, Strauss and Popper by Robert Waldmann

Neoconservatives have expressed sympathy for "intelligent design theory," that is, creationism. This is well documented by Ronald Bailey's article in "Reason on line." Bailey discusses why neoconservatives might claim they don't believe in evolution by natural selection even though there is no scientific basis for that view.

update: link corrected thanks to VtCodger in comments.

Mainly, he suspects that it is a Strussian "noble lie," roughly that they believe that fundamentalist religion is needed for the good of society, so they pretend to agree with it. He mentions, but is not very fascinated by, the idea that this is partisan hackery -- that neoconservatives think the interests of the Republican party would be harmed if they didn't bend their knees before the fundamentalists. Of course the problem is that once one decides to lie, it is very hard to decide exactly how noble to be about it.

He doesn't mention the collosal arrogance of people who assume that biologists don't know anything relevant about biology which they don't know. I think this is always a risk in people coming from law or social sciences. They just have no clue how much evidence lies behind the claims of natural scientists and assume that they can bluff their way past biologists as they have successfully bluffed their way past say economomists.

In the second part of his article, Bailey argues that there is no scientific case against evolution by natural selection. Naturally it would come first, one normally doesn't question someone's honesty until one has exausted other options (although the NeoCons he quotes are pretty up front about how they start with the conclusion and work back to the evidence). I think the editorial decision makes sense as most Reason on Line readers don't really need to be convinced that modern biology is not all a big mistake.

I think Bailey's arguments for Darwin are weaker than his earlier analysis—not because he doesn't make a convincing case, but because he buries the lede. Basically he has a theoretical disagreement with a mathematician, then speculates about the origin of life, then asks if one can be both a Christian and a Darwinist (hint yes) and only then discusses some of the evidendence for evolution by natural selection.

But Berlinski stoutly declares in Commentary that he is no creationist. He claims merely to be engaged in critiquing the failures of Darwinism. Berlinski is particularly savage about what he regards as Darwinism's tautological character. "Time and again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival, the friction between the two concepts kindling nothing more than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time."

In Berlinski's view, evolutionary theory simply says that the ones that survive are the ones that survive. But that is not quite right. But that is not quite right. Darwinian natural selection sifts for useful variations among mutations, thus natural selection generates increased fitness, not just preserving the fittest. This process generates new species, species B being the descendant of earlier species A. This claim is clearly more than a tautology.

Wrong Bailey, the way to argue that something isn't a tautology is to point out a testable implication. Instead Bailey claims the stated theory is not quite right because it didn't include the word "species" even this explanation is incorrect (see below*) but the main thing is that the theory of evolution by natural selection has testable implications because organisms have detectable features which don't make any detectable difference.

The evidence for the theory became vastly vastly enormously gigantically even more immense than it was already when biologists began sequencing DNA. They found patterns explained by the idea some sequences don't matter and drift faster than others which do. Based on those sequences they can redraw the family tree of living things and lo and behold it almost exactly matches the tree drawn based on other features and based on fossils. Oh and one can check that the sequences that don't seem to matter don't matter and, so far, they don't. Before sequencing the evidence was weaker but already overwhelming based on traights which didn't seem important.

There might be another explanation for these facts, but no one has ever pretended to have one. Instead critics of biology like Berlinski and Kristol just ignore the evidence entirely. Bailey mentions it long after speculating at length about the origin of life (OK and I began indignantly typing before I read that far).

Berlinksi's claim is, I think, false as a matter of fact. Biologists do not claim that the survival of this or that species is evidence in favor of evolutionary biology. The evidence all concerns trivial things which are considered evidence of evolutionary history exactly because they have tiny or zero effect on fitness.

The quote of Berlinski (all I have read of his writings) does not disprove the hypothesis that he thinks that modern evolutionary biology is completely summed up by the phrase "the survival of the fittest." That is, indeed, a tautology. It is indeed part of the subtitle of "The Origin of Species." But I mean, to be fair to Darwin, one should at least read the full subtitle. Oh and maybe glance at the book. And to be fair to evolutionary biology, one would have to note that much evidence has been collected since then (not to mention the theory has developed).

I have Popper in the title, because Popper did the same damn thing in "The Open Society and Its Enemies." Popper at least asserted that something wasn't there -- predictions which have since been confirmed, explanations of puzzling facts, you know non tautological science -- which absolutely wasn't there. Popper, I think, assumed that he was brilliant enough to know what is written in a book after reading part (not all) of its subtitle.

* I think a biologist tried to explain this to Bailey and he didn't get it. The non tautological point is that the descendents of species A might belonge to species B and C two different species present at the same time. Now the claim that two different organisms belong to different species is *not* mere terminology -- it has an operational definition -- orgnaisms from two different species can not produce fertile offspring descended from both of them.

If evolution were always new species A replacing now extinct species B, then all we would know is that we choose to use different words for organisms of type A and B. Without a time machine, we can't test if they are two different species.

Now "survival of the fittest" does not logically imply that one species can, over time, split into two. This is a radical idea. It is also, in principle, experimentally testable, although the experiment will take a long time.

I personally think the experiment is under way and it is already clear that one species can split into 2 much more quickly than evolutionary biologists imagined. The experiment is raising fruit flies in laboratories. They are used to study genetics. Normal non mutant flies are called "wild type" but their ancestors haven't been wild for about a century now. They have been bread in labs from each other.

Interestingly when an actual wild male captured in the wild is mated with a lab bread "wild type" female, something happens called "hybrid disgenisis" which means the offspring are messed up. It is known that this is caused by a transposon (basically a very very benign virus) which keeps itself inactive in the

genome of wild fruit flies by making a repressor protein. None of that protein gets into spermatazoa so if the transposon is in one of the male's chromasomes it makes copies of itself and spreads them around inside the chromasomes of the fertilized egg.

Evidently the transposon spread through the wild population after the ancestors of the lab flies were captured.

Some of the offspring survive this process. But already there is a barrier between wild and lab fruit flies after about one century. One can imagine that another hundred years or so, wild males will not be able to produce fertile offspring with lab bread females (just a few more such latent virus like things would do it).

Now to get two whole species it has to be blocked the other way too and the lab population is very isolated (also from other insects) and divided among labs so I mean maybe experimental speciation won't occur in my grandchildren's lifetime. But it's really close.

[Aug 15, 2009] Economic fundamentalism and the minimum wage By Kathy G.

May 11, 2008 | Crooked Timber

Another thing that must be pointed out: given the anti-regulation ideological bias of the economics profession as a whole, it’s not hard to imagine that studies that do find that the minimum wage has a disemployment effect are considerably more likely to be published. I’m not accusing anyone of scholarly fraud here. But the fact is, there are lots of different datasets you can use, lots of models to go with, lots of variables to include or leave out, and lots of ways to slice and dice the data. It’s not unheard of for researchers to opportunistically try different models and methodologies until they hit upon one that gives them the results they want.

Here is what economist Edward Glaeser had to say in a recent paper about researcher incentives and empirical methods:

Economists are quick to assume opportunistic behavior in almost every walk of life other than our own. Our empirical methods are based on assumptions of human behavior that would not pass muster in any of our models. The solution to this problem is not to expect a mass renunciation of data mining, selective data cleaning or opportunistic methodology selection, but rather to follow Leamer’s lead in designing and using techniques that anticipate the behavior of optimizing researchers.
Indeed, Krueger and Card have written a paper that provides strong evidence that “specification searching and publication bias” have led to an overrepresentation of studies that find that the minimum wage has a statistically significant disemployment effect. The ideological character of much of the economics profession in the United States suggests that there are rewards for producing scholarship that confirms the idea that the minimum wage causes unemployment, and punishment for scholarship that finds otherwise.

David Card, a highly regarded economist at Berkeley (among other honors, he won the John Bates Clark Prize, a prestigious award given every two years to the most outstanding economist under 40), has produced many of the best studies taking issue with the old conventional wisdom about the minimum wage. But he stopped studying this subject, to a large degree because the reception his research got was so hostile in some quarters of the economics profession. He said:

I’ve subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole.

“Traitors to the cause of economics as a whole”! Those are strong words, especially coming from someone who seems, on the basis of interviews at least, to be a fairly mild-mannered, non-drama-queen kind of guy. And if someone who’s a tenured full professor and one of the leading lights in his field took so much heat that he abandoned this line of research, what do you think the chances are that aspiring Ph.D.s and ambitious young assistant professors are going to touch this issue with a ten-foot pole?

I mentioned before that I found some of the criticisms by Murphy et al. of the 1994 Krueger and Card study to be quite legitimate. But they made other criticisms that have not been so reasonable. Here is Murphy et al. on what economic theory has to say about the minimum wage:

The implications of the theory are also simple and direct. The prediction that an artificial increase in the price of something causes less of it to be purchased is the most fundamental prediction of economics; it is called the law of demand.
Well, actually, it’s not so clear that an “artificial” increase in price will necessarily cause less of the good to be purchased. For one thing, it depends on the elasticity of demand for the good. If demand is perfectly inelastic, an increase in price would not lead to a decrease in demand.

 

More importantly, though, it’s a huge mistake to view the purchase of a unit of human labor as being exactly the same as the purchase of a widget. What economics has done is to take the models of the supply and demand of consumer goods and apply them to the supply and demand of labor. This, I believe, is fundamentally wrong-headed. Human labor and consumer goods are categorically different, and it’s a big mistake to treat them as if they were interchangeable. There are a slew of institutions, norms, and other features of labor markets that do not apply to product markets.

[Aug 15, 2009] "Freshwater Rage"

Obstfeld and Rogoff would have been as clueless about the logic of temporary fiscal expansion as these guys have been. Freshwater macro became totally insular.
And hence the most surprising thing in the debate over fiscal stimulus: the raw ignorance that has characterized so many of the freshwater comments. Above all, we’ve seen the phenomenon of well-known economists “rediscovering” Say’s Law and the Treasury view (the view that government cannot affect the overall level of demand), not because they’ve transcended the Keynesian refutation of these views, but because they were unaware that there had ever been such a debate.
It’s a sad story. And the even sadder thing is that it’s very unlikely that anything will change: freshwater macro will get even more insular, and its devotees will wonder why nobody in the real world of policy and action pays any attention to what they say.

I am not quite as pessimistic about the prospects for change, but many people have their life's work wrapped up in a particular brand of model and they will defend that work aggressively, so I do agree that it's likely to come in spite of rather than because of the old guard.
 

Kaleberg says...

I remember when Malcom Forbes died and his son took over his magazine. At first, it didn't change much, but after perhaps a year it lost touch with reality. The articles were all dogma and mindless sloganeering. It suddenly felt horribly familiar. As far as I could tell I was reading a rehash of Pravda. Needless to say, I canceled my subscription.

Freshwater economists and communist economics have much in common than people like to admit. Neither admits reality and both scorn the facts and any critics. They like to think of themselves as opposite poles, but for anyone living on this here earth they were hard to distinguish. The communists brought down the Soviet empire and the freshwater economists are doing their bit to destroy ours.

Bruce Wilder says...

One aspect of this "debate" that has me a little curious is the way in which the antagonists have come down to the wordy, fuzzy, hand-waving, sloganeering, semi-philosophical level, where I live, to have this fight.

Cochrane was actually very angry about the fact that Krugman used "casual" or "popular" expressions of various freshwater types to illustrate his critique, rather than fairly cite the high theory on its own terms: "Paul isn’t doing his job. He’s supposed to read, explain, and criticize things economists write, and real professional writing, not interviews, opeds and blog posts."

In Cochrane's criticism of the Obama stimulus proposal early in the year, he exposed the conflict between his passionate ideological commitments, where he felt obligated to re-assert the usual conservative shibboleths, on the one hand, his capacity to understand the Keynesian argument on the other. Ideology won out.

But, it raises three points, that I think are important.

One is that, if economics, as a carefully and meticulously vetted way of thinking and assembly of verified facts, is to usefully inform the public discourse, then what one says in op-eds and interviews has to be consistent with the discipline's knowledge.

A second is, that in the public discourse, one ought to be able to state, or re-state, accurately the opponent's view. This is SOP in academic reviews and panels. Yet, conservatives seem to think that it is acceptable, or tactically useful, to deliberately misunderstand progressive arguments. Deafness as a tactic.

A third is that, I suspect, that things have been structured in academic circles, in the realm of high theory and professional research, so that this conflict can never play itself out. It can happen now, in the public policy discourse, because there's a vital public policy problem, that demands a realistic response.

But, in normal academic dispute, things are set up in various ways, to prevent anyone from winning the argument. The argument goes on. But, even when someone is wrong, they don't admit it, and don't have to, and even neutral observers don't have to acknowledge it. Even the existence of a fundamental, if unsettled problem is not acknowledged. An orthodoxy is confirmed in administrative control of journals and departments; a pathetically impotent methodology is adopted. And, inconvenient "facts" are simply ignored.

I've made myself read what Cochrane has written and made available to the general public this year in this dispute. I don't think he's clueless. He can follow the Keynesian argument. But, he has very strong ideological commitments that conflict with acknowledging the Keynesian argument, and, like a lot of conservatives, who follow in the tradition of Milton Friedman (and Cochrane is doing so, explictly), it is A-OK to affirm your ideological commitments in popular writing, without regard to making it fully consistent with your professional knowledge.

Economic analysis, as done in the page of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, is not going to be as sophisticated and subtle as it might be in a professional or academic forum. But, what are the rules that relate the fora? And, why is this controversy playing itself out in the plebian blogosphere?

gordon says...

Well, there is the "life's work" theory and I wouldn't discount it. But there is also ideological bias disguised as objective research, and I wouldn't discount that, either. Kathy G. in this old post

http://crookedtimber.org/2008/05/11/economic-fundamentalism-and-the-minimum-wage/

discusses it, and quotes David Card on why he stopped publishing on minimum wages and employment. She quotes him as saying:

"I’ve subsequently stayed away from the minimum wage literature for a number of reasons. First, it cost me a lot of friends. People that I had known for many years, for instance, some of the ones I met at my first job at the University of Chicago, became very angry or disappointed. They thought that in publishing our work we were being traitors to the cause of economics as a whole".

It seems pretty clear to me, at least, that the role of Govt. in the US economy was an issue that was bitterly fought out in the 1930s and will have to be as bitterly fought out again. I don't see that is because of economics itself, but because of social and political developments and how they interact with the economics profession.

[Sep 10, 2009] Priceless: How The Federal Reserve Bought The Economics Profession by Ryan Grim

The Huffington Post
The Federal Reserve, through its extensive network of consultants, visiting scholars, alumni and staff economists, so thoroughly dominates the field of economics that real criticism of the central bank has become a career liability for members of the profession, an investigation by the Huffington Post has found.

This dominance helps explain how, even after the Fed failed to foresee the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression, the central bank has largely escaped criticism from academic economists. In the Fed's thrall, the economists missed it, too.

"The Fed has a lock on the economics world," says Joshua Rosner, a Wall Street analyst who correctly called the meltdown. "There is no room for other views, which I guess is why economists got it so wrong."

One critical way the Fed exerts control on academic economists is through its relationships with the field's gatekeepers. For instance, at the Journal of Monetary Economics, a must-publish venue for rising economists, more than half of the editorial board members are currently on the Fed payroll -- and the rest have been in the past.

The Fed failed to see the housing bubble as it happened, insisting that the rise in housing prices was normal. In 2004, after "flipping" had become a term cops and janitors were using to describe the way to get rich in real estate, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that "a national severe price distortion [is] most unlikely." A year later, current Chairman Ben Bernanke said that the boom "largely reflect strong economic fundamentals."

The Fed also failed to sufficiently regulate major financial institutions, with Greenspan -- and the dominant economists -- believing that the banks would regulate themselves in their own self-interest.

Despite all this, Bernanke has been nominated for a second term by President Obama.

In the field of economics, the chairman remains a much-heralded figure, lauded for reaction to a crisis generated, in the first place, by the Fed itself. Congress is even considering legislation to greatly expand the powers of the Fed to systemically regulate the financial industry.

Paul Krugman, in Sunday's New York Times magazine, did his own autopsy of economics, asking "How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?" Krugman concludes that "[e]conomics, as a field, got in trouble because economists were seduced by the vision of a perfect, frictionless market system."

So who seduced them?

The Fed did it.

Three Decades of Domination

The Fed has been dominating the profession for about three decades. "For the economics profession that came out of the [second world] war, the Federal Reserve was not a very important place as far as they were concerned, and their views on monetary policy were not framed by a working relationship with the Federal Reserve. So I would date it to maybe the mid-1970s," says University of Texas economics professor -- and Fed critic -- James Galbraith. "The generation that I grew up under, which included both Milton Friedman on the right and Jim Tobin on the left, were independent of the Fed. They sent students to the Fed and they influenced the Fed, but there wasn't a culture of consulting, and it wasn't the same vast network of professional economists working there."

But by 1993, when former Fed Chairman Greenspan provided the House banking committee with a breakdown of the number of economists on contract or employed by the Fed, he reported that 189 worked for the board itself and another 171 for the various regional banks. Adding in statisticians, support staff and "officers" -- who are generally also economists -- the total number came to 730. And then there were the contracts. Over a three-year period ending in October 1994, the Fed awarded 305 contracts to 209 professors worth a total of $3 million.

Just how dominant is the Fed today?

The Federal Reserve's Board of Governors employs 220 PhD economists and a host of researchers and support staff, according to a Fed spokeswoman. The 12 regional banks employ scores more. (HuffPost placed calls to them but was unable to get exact numbers.) The Fed also doles out millions of dollars in contracts to economists for consulting assignments, papers, presentations, workshops, and that plum gig known as a "visiting scholarship." A Fed spokeswoman says that exact figures for the number of economists contracted with weren't available. But, she says, the Federal Reserve spent $389.2 million in 2008 on "monetary and economic policy," money spent on analysis, research, data gathering, and studies on market structure; $433 million is budgeted for 2009.

That's a lot of money for a relatively small number of economists. According to the American Economic Association, a total of only 487 economists list "monetary policy, central banking, and the supply of money and credit," as either their primary or secondary specialty; 310 list "money and interest rates"; and 244 list "macroeconomic policy formation [and] aspects of public finance and general policy." The National Association of Business Economists tells HuffPost that 611 of its roughly 2,400 members are part of their "Financial Roundtable," the closest way they can approximate a focus on monetary policy and central banking.

Robert Auerbach, a former investigator with the House banking committee, spent years looking into the workings of the Fed and published much of what he found in the 2008 book, "Deception
and Abuse at the Fed
". A chapter in that book, excerpted here, provided the impetus for this investigation.

Auerbach found that in 1992, roughly 968 members of the AEA designated "domestic monetary and financial theory and institutions" as their primary field, and 717 designated it as their secondary field. Combining his numbers with the current ones from the AEA and NABE, it's fair to conclude that there are something like 1,000 to 1,500 monetary economists working across the country. Add up the 220 economist jobs at the Board of Governors along with regional bank hires and contracted economists, and the Fed employs or contracts with easily 500 economists at any given time. Add in those who have previously worked for the Fed -- or who hope to one day soon -- and you've accounted for a very significant majority of the field.

Auerbach concludes that the "problems associated with the Fed's employing or contracting with large numbers of economists" arise "when these economists testify as witnesses at legislative hearings or as experts at judicial proceedings, and when they publish their research and views on Fed policies, including in Fed publications."

Gatekeepers On The Payroll

The Fed keeps many of the influential editors of prominent acade>The pharmaceutical industry has similarly worked to control key medical journals, but that involves several companies. In the field of economics, it's just the Fed.

Being on the Fed payroll isn't just about the money, either. A relationship with the Fed carries prestige; invitations to Fed conferences and offers of visiting scholarships with the bank signal a rising star or an economist who has arrived.

Affiliations with the Fed have become the oxygen of academic life for monetary economists. "It's very important, if you are tenure track and don't have tenure, to show that you are valued by the Federal Reserve," says Jane D'Arista, a Fed critic and an economist with the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Robert King, editor in chief of the Journal of Monetary Economics and a visiting scholar at the Richmond Federal Reserve Bank, dismisses the notion that his journal was influenced by its Fed connections. "I think that the suggestion is a silly one, based on my own experience at least," he wrote in an e-mail. (His full response is at the bottom.)

Galbraith, a Fed critic, has seen the Fed's influence on academia first hand. He and co-authors Olivier Giovannoni and Ann Russo found that in the year before a presidential election, there is a significantly tighter monetary policy coming from the Fed if a Democrat is in office and a significantly looser policy if a Republican is in office. The effects are both statistically significant, allowing for controls, and economically important.

They submitted a paper with their findings to the Review of Economics and Statistics in 2008, but the paper was rejected. "The editor assigned to it turned out to be a fellow at the Fed and that was after I requested that it not be assigned to someone affiliated with the Fed," Galbraith says.

Publishing in top journals is, like in any discipline, the key to getting tenure. Indeed, pursuing tenure ironically requires a kind of fealty to the dominant economic ideology that is the precise opposite of the purpose of tenure, which is to protect academics who present oppositional perspectives.

And while most academic disciplines and top-tier journals are controlled by some defining paradigm, in an academic field like poetry, that situation can do no harm other than to, perhaps, a forest of trees. Economics, unfortunately, collides with reality -- as it did with the Fed's incorrect reading of the housing bubble and failure to regulate financial institutions. Neither was a matter of incompetence, but both resulted from the Fed's unchallenged assumptions about the way the market worked.

Even the late Milton Friedman, whose monetary economic theories heavily influenced Greenspan, was concerned about the stifled nature of the debate. Friedman, in a 1993 letter to Auerbach that the author quotes in his book, argued that the Fed practice was harming objectivity: "I cannot disagree with you that having something like 500 economists is extremely unhealthy. As you say, it is not conducive to independent, objective research. You and I know there has been censorship of the material published. Equally important, the location of the economists in the Federal Reserve has had a significant influence on the kind of research they do, biasing that research toward noncontroversial technical papers on method as opposed to substantive papers on policy and results," Friedman wrote.

Greenspan told Congress in October 2008 that he was in a state of "shocked disbelief" and that the "whole intellectual edifice" had "collapsed." House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) followed up: "In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working."

"Absolutely, precisely," Greenspan replied. "You know, that's precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well."

But, if the intellectual edifice has collapsed, the intellectual infrastructure remains in place. The same economists who provided Greenspan his "very considerable evidence" are still running the journals and still analyzing the world using the same models that were incapable of seeing the credit boom and the coming collapse.

Rosner, the Wall Street analyst who foresaw the crash, says that the Fed's ideological dominance of the journals hampered his attempt to warn his colleagues about what was to come. Rosner wrote a strikingly prescient paper in 2001 arguing that relaxed lending standards and other factors would lead to a boom in housing prices over the next several years, but that the growth would be highly susceptible to an economic disruption because it was fundamentally unsound.

He expanded on those ideas over the next few years, connecting the dots and concluding that the coming housing collapse would wreak havoc on the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) and mortgage backed securities (MBS) markets, which would have a ripple effect on the rest of the economy. That, of course, is exactly what happened and it took the Fed and the economics field completely by surprise.

"What you're doing is, actually, in order to get published, having to whittle down or narrow what might otherwise be oppositional or expansionary views," says Rosner. "The only way you can actually get in a journal is by subscribing to the views of one of the journals."

When Rosner was casting his paper on CDOs and MBSs about, he knew he needed an academic economist to co-author the paper for a journal to consider it. Seven economists turned him down.

"You don't believe that markets are efficient?" he says they asked, telling him the paper was "outside the bounds" of what could be published. "I would say 'Markets are efficient when there's equal access to information, but that doesn't exist,'" he recalls.

The CDO and MBS markets froze because, as the housing market crashed, buyers didn't trust that they had reliable information about them -- precisely the case Rosner had been making.

He eventually found a co-author, Joseph Mason, an associate Professor of Finance at Drexel University LeBow College of Business, a senior fellow at the Wharton School, and a visiting scholar at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. But the pair could only land their papers with the conservative Hudson Institute. In February 2007, they published a paper called "How Resilient Are Mortgage Backed Securities to Collateralized Debt Obligation Market Disruptions?" and in May posted another, "How Misapplied Bond Ratings Cause Mortgage Backed Securities and Collateralized Debt Obligation Market Disruptions."

Together, the two papers offer a better analysis of what led to the crash than the economic journals have managed to put together - and they were published by a non-PhD before the crisis.

Not As Simple As A Pay-Off

Economist Rob Johnson serves on the UN Commission of Experts on Finance and International Monetary Reform and was a top economist on the Senate banking committee under both a Democratic and Republican chairman. He says that the consulting gigs shouldn't be looked at "like it's a payoff, like money. I think it's more being one of, part of, a club -- being respected, invited to the conferences, have a hearing with the chairman, having all the prestige dimensions, as much as a paycheck."

The Fed's hiring of so many economists can be looked at in several ways, Johnson says, because the institution does, of course, need talented analysts. "You can look at it from a telescope, either direction. One, you can say well they're reaching out, they've got a big budget and what they're doing, I'd say, is canvassing as broad a range of talent," he says. "You might call that the 'healthy hypothesis.'"

The other hypothesis, he says, "is that they're essentially using taxpayer money to wrap their arms around everybody that's a critic and therefore muffle or silence the debate. And I would say that probably both dimensions are operative, in reality."

To get a mainstream take, HuffPost called monetary economists at random from the list as members of the AEA. "I think there is a pretty good number of professors of economics who want a very limited use of monetary policy and I don't think that that necessarily has a negative impact on their careers," said Ahmed Ehsan, reached at the economics department at James Madison University. "It's quite possible that if they have some new ideas, that might be attractive to the Federal Reserve."

Ehsan, reflecting on his own career and those of his students, allowed that there is, in fact, something to what the Fed critics are saying. "I don't think [the Fed has too much influence], but then my area is monetary economics and I know my own professors, who were really well known when I was at Michigan State, my adviser, he ended up at the St. Louis Fed," he recalls. "He did lots of work. He was a product of the time...so there is some evidence, but it's not an overwhelming thing."

There's definitely prestige in spending a few years at the Fed that can give a boost to an academic career, he added. "It's one of the better career moves for lots of undergraduate students. It's very competitive."

Press officers for the Federal Reserve's board of governors provided some background information for this article, but declined to make anyone available to comment on its substance.

The Fed's Intolerance For Dissent

When dissent has arisen, the Fed has dealt with it like any other institution that cherishes homogeneity.

Take the case of Alan Blinder. Though he's squarely within the mainstream and considered one of the great economic minds of his generation, he lasted a mere year and a half as vice chairman of the Fed, leaving in January 1996.

Rob Johnson, who watched the Blinder ordeal, says Blinder made the mistake of behaving as if the Fed was a place where competing ideas and assumptions were debated. "Sociologically, what was happening was the Fed staff was really afraid of Blinder. At some level, as an applied empirical economist, Alan Blinder is really brilliant," says Johnson.

In closed-door meetings, Blinder did what so few do: challenged assumptions. "The Fed staff would come out and their ritual is: Greenspan has kind of told them what to conclude and they produce studies in which they conclude this. And Blinder treated it more like an open academic debate when he first got there and he'd come out and say, 'Well, that's not true. If you change this assumption and change this assumption and use this kind of assumption you get a completely different result.' And it just created a stir inside--it was sort of like the whole pipeline of Greenspan-arriving-at-decisions was
disrupted."

It didn't sit well with Greenspan or his staff. "A lot of senior staff...were pissed off about Blinder -- how should we say? -- not playing by the customs that they were accustomed to," Johnson says.

And celebrity is no shield against Fed excommunication. Paul Krugman, in fact, has gotten rough treatment. "I've been blackballed from the Fed summer conference at Jackson Hole, which I used to be a regular at, ever since I criticized him," Krugman said of Greenspan in a 2007 interview with Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now! "Nobody really wants to cross him."

An invitation to the annual conference, or some other blessing from the Fed, is a signal to the economic profession that you're a certified member of the club. Even Krugman seems a bit burned by the slight. "And two years ago," he said in 2007, "the conference was devoted to a field, new economic geography, that I invented, and I wasn't invited."

Three years after the conference, Krugman won a Nobel Prize in 2008 for his work in economic geography.

One Journal, In Detail

The Huffington Post reviewed the mastheads of the American Journal of Economics, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Economic Literature, the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, the Journal of Political Economy and the Journal of Monetary Economics.

HuffPost interns Googled around looking for resumes and otherwise searched for Fed connections for the 190 people on those mastheads. Of the 84 that were affiliated with the Federal Reserve at one point in their careers, 21 were on the Fed payroll even as they served as gatekeepers at prominent journals.

At the Journal of Monetary Economics, every single member of the editorial board is or has been affiliated with the Fed and 14 of the 26 board members are presently on the Fed payroll.

After the top editor, King, comes senior associate editor Marianne Baxter, who has written papers for the Chicago and Minneapolis banks and was a visiting scholar at the Minneapolis bank in '84, '85, at the Richmond bank in '97, and at the board itself in '87. She was an advisor to the president of the New York bank from '02-'05. Tim Geithner, now the Treasury Secretary, became president of the New York bank in '03.

The senior associate editors: Janice C Eberly was a Fed visiting-scholar at Philadelphia ('94), Minneapolis ('97) and the board ('97). Martin Eichenbaum has written several papers for the Fed and is a consultant to the Chicago and Atlanta banks. Sergio Rebelo has written for and was previously a consultant to the board. Stephen Williamson has written for the Cleveland, Minneapolis and Richmond banks, he worked in the Minneapolis bank's research department from '85-'87, he's on the editorial board of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review, is the co-organizer of the '09 St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank annual economic policy conference and the co-organizer of the same bank's '08 conference on Money, Credit, and Policy, and has been a visiting scholar at the Richmond bank ever since '98.

And then there are the associate editors. Klaus Adam is a visiting scholar at the San Francisco bank. Yongsung Chang is a research associate at the Cleveland bank and has been working with the Fed in one position or another since '01. Mario Crucini was a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in '08 and has been a senior fellow at the Dallas bank since that year. Huberto Ennis is a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, a position he's held since '00. Jonathan Heathcote is a senior economist at the Minneapolis bank and has been a visiting scholar three times dating back to '01.

Ricardo Lagos is a visiting scholar at the New York bank, a former senior economist for the Minneapolis bank and a visiting scholar at that bank and Cleveland's. In fact, he was a visiting scholar at both the Cleveland and New York banks in '07 and '08. Edward Nelson was the assistant vice president of the St Louis bank from '03-'09.

Esteban Rossi-Hansberg was a visiting scholar at the Philadelphia bank from '05-'09 and similarly served at the Richmond, Minneapolis and New York banks.

Pierre-Daniel Sarte is a senior economist at the Richmond bank, a position he's held since '96. Frank Schorfheide has been a visiting scholar at the Philadelphia bank since '03 and at the New York bank since '07. He's done four such stints at the Atlanta bank and scholared for the board in '03. Alexander Wolman has been a senior economist at the Richmond bank since 1989.

Here is the complete response from King, the journal's editor in chief: "I think that the suggestion is a silly one, based on my own experience at least. In a 1988 article for AEI later republished in the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond Review, Marvin Goodfriend (then at FRB Richmond and now at Carnegie Mellon) and I argued that it was very important for the Fed to separate monetary policy decisions (setting of interest rates) and banking policy decisions (loans to banks, via the discount window and otherwise). We argued further that there was little positive case for the Fed to be involved in the latter: broadbased liquidity could always be provided by the former. We also argued that moral hazard was a cost of banking intervention.

"Ben Bernanke understands this distinction well: he and other members of the FOMC have read my perspective and sometimes use exactly this distinction between monetary and banking policies. In difficult times, Bernanke and his fellow FOMC members have chosen to involve the Fed in major financial market interventions, well beyond the traditional banking area, a position that attracts plenty of criticism and support. JME and other economics major journals would certainly publish exciting articles that fell between these two distinct perspectives: no intervention and extensive intervention. An upcoming Carnegie-Rochester conference, with its proceeding published in JME, will host a debate on 'The Future of Central Banking'.

"You may use only the entire quotation above or no quotation at all."

Auerbach, shown King's e-mail, says it's just this simple: "If you're on the Fed payroll there's a conflict of interest."

Elyse Siegel, Julian Hattem, Jeff Muskus and Jenna Staul contributed to this report

Responces

Angry Bear

Huffington Post Editorial Standards II

Robert Waldmann

In response to a critical comment, I have decided to actually read the article which I stopped reading when it said the Journal of Monetary Economics was a must publish journal for young economists.

Ryan Grim asserts that economists don't criticize the Fed because the Fed has bought control of the economics profession.

I have three general impressions. First the sourcing is very odd. There are fairly few academic economists quoted and two of them firmly contest Ryan Grim's thesis.

Second it is assumed that the Federal Reserve System is a centrally controlled disciplined organization. Grim explicitly includes regional Federal Reserve Banks. Thus he assumes that the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis is identical to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. This is a bold assumption. Finally, he is convinced that the economists who might comment on the FED are "monetary economists." I have met macroeconomists and economists who work on money banking and credit, but I don't recall ever meeting a monetary economist.

I have no idea how much influence the Fed has on the debate in the profession (really) and certainly agree that the economics profession is dangerously in bred and that it is much much much better for an economist to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right (but it's gotten better in the past 20 years).

More detailed comments after the jump.

OK editorial standards. Grims list of the journals that he considers important follows

The Huffington Post reviewed the mastheads of the American Journal of Economics, the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Economic Literature, the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, the Journal of Political Economy and the Journal of Monetary Economics.

The list does not appear to include the American Economic Review which is a bit more important than the American Journal of Economics. It also doesn't include the Quarterly Journal, Econometrica, The Review of Economic Studies, The Journal of Economic Theory or, well, any of the really top journals except for the Journal of Political Economy.

The Journal of Economic Literature is mainly an index of articles. It contains review articles and book reviews (partly I think so that it can be shipped with the special rate for journals). The journal of economic perspectives doesn't really publish research exactly -- articles are meant to be easily understood so its role is, in very large part, divulgative.

Grim attempts to explain why economists didn't warn of the financial crisis before it hit, in part, by having interns google members of the boards of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy

I quote from the Wikipedia

American Economic Journal is a group of four peer-reviewed academic journals published by the American Economic Association. The names of the individual journals consist of the prefix American Economic Journal with a descriptor of the field attached. The four field journals which started in 2009 are Applied Economics, Economic Policy, Macroeconomics, and Microeconomics.
it is a bit harsh to blame the editors of journals which started publishing in 2009 for the failure to warn of the events of September 2008. I think normal courtesy would compel someone to wikipedia a journal title before having interns google its board of editors.

On lumping regional banks in with the board of governors, Grim argues that Bernanke controls the JME partly by noting that many editors of the JME are affiliated with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. This is not a joke.

Now as to the universe of critics the Fed might want to buy off. Grim assumes that it consists of "monetary economists" who are distinct from macroeconomists of finance economists. I don't think there is such a group of people (name one).
Yet oddly, he considers many people who are not monetary economists valid critics of the Fed. He quotes Joshua Rosner, a Wall Street analyst, James Galbraith (who sure knows what he's talking about but probably doesn't "list 'monetary policy, central banking, and the supply of money and credit,' as either their primary or secondary specialty," (I will write "not monetary" below) Robert Auerbach, a former investigator with the House banking committee, Jane D'Arista, a Fed critic and an economist with the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts (not monetary) Robert King (who contests his thesis and is I'd guess not monetary), a letter from Milton Friedman (OK he's got one monetary economist who criticizes the Fed), Economist Rob Johnson (OK maybe two), Ahmed Ehsan a self described monetary economist who disagrees with the thesis, and Paul Krugman (not monetary).

The thesis is that the Fed (including regional banks who take orders from the chairman evidently) controls most people who have standing to criticize the Fed. Journalistic integrity requires checking if the critics of the Fed whose standing Grim considers adequate are on his list of people who have the standing to criticize the Fed. I'd guess that at most one does (Friedman is, sadly, no longer a member of the AEA).

The economics profession is a very large very slow moving target, but it is possible to miss.

David Beckworth

For a more scholarly, even-handed look at the Fed's influence see Lawrence H. White's article on this topic: http://www.aier.org/ejw/archive/investigating-the-apparatus/doc_details/3647-ejw-200508

Kievite

I think Waldmann is widely off the mark with his simplistic critique of the article.  Nitpicking on shortcomings he misses the whole picture which is the fact that there are perverse "academic kingdoms" in economics which guard their interests and those kingdoms are supported by state (the Fed is just one example of such support).  This phenomenon is not new and is called Lysenkoism. Moreover, the fact the neoclassical economics became dominant economic paradigms make is probably one of the most important demonstrations of the fact that Lysenkoism did nor die with the USSR.

In view of this Waldmann's complain about lack of sourcing is completely naive: IMHO few of actually working economists will discuss openly this issue. Ostracism is easy as academic journal space is a very scarce resource.

BTW the unverified argument that Waldman's own articles were supposedly never rejected make his critic even more disingenuous that otherwise.  Talent always face opposition from the defenders of status quo or current scientific paradigm as Thomas Kuhn  explained.  IMHO the only way to have articles never rejected is to became a sycophant of one of the "tsars" of dominant economic school,

[Sep 1, 2009] An Update on C. P. Snow's "Two Cultures"  By Lawrence M. Krauss  

A new column that examines the intersection between science and society provides an update on the historic essay

There is another factor, one that was on display at the World Science Festival in New York City this summer, which helps to undermine the role of science in society. Amid events on the cosmos, modern biology, quantum mechanics and other areas at the forefront of science, I participated in a panel discussion on science, faith and religion.

Why would such an event be a part of a science festival? We accord a special place to religion, in part thanks to groups such as the Templeton Foundation, which has spent millions annually raising the profile of “big questions,” which tend to suggest that science and religious belief are somehow related and should be treated as equals.

The problem is, they are not. Ultimately, science is at best only consistent with a God that does not directly intervene in the daily operations of the cosmos, certainly not the personal and ancient gods associated with the world’s great religions. Even though, as physicist Steven Weinberg has emphasized, most people who call themselves religious tend to adhere to only those bits and pieces from scripture that appeal to them, by according undue respect for ancient religious beliefs in general, we nonetheless are suggesting that they are on par with conclusions that have been drawn from centuries of rational empirical investigation.

Snow hoped for a world that is quite different from how we live today, where indifference to science has, through religious fundamentalism, sometimes morphed into open hostility about concepts such as evolution and the big bang.

Snow did not rail against religion, but ignorance. As the moderator in my panel finally understood after an hour of discussion, the only vague notions of God that may be compatible with science ensure that God is essentially irrelevant to both our understanding of nature and our actions based on it. Until we are willing to accept the world the way it is, without miracles that all empirical evidence argues against, without myths that distort our comprehension of nature, we are unlikely to bridge the divide between science and culture and, more important, we are unlikely to be fully ready to address the urgent technical challenges facing humanity.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "C. P. Snow in New York."

===

Dr Huddleston:

It is true that a god who does not intervene in the natural world in any manner is compatible with science. But why stop with gods? You can postulate any entity you want with equal plausibility, so long as that entity never interacts with our reality. And nobody will fault you for that, as long as you refrain from

1) indoctrinating children in your arbitrary choice of faith

2) denigrating other people's choices because they conflict with the opinions of your imaginary friend

3) imposing your baseless beliefs on others through violence and law.

Unfortunately, these things are exactly what many people experience as "religion". If you want atheists to remain silent while you spread a system of beliefs that proclaims them sinners who are destined for eternal torment unless they recant, you need a stronger argument than the mere absence of absolute disproof.

===

"Judeo-Christian" doctrine is a cover phrase for "Evangelical Christian."  It's been disproved as a legitimate term for nearly two decades in cultural anthropological circles. The two religions as modes of thought ("doctrines") are distinct and different: Among other things, Judaism employs a reverence for intellect, argument and "play" with its sacred texts, and has an historical ever-evolving notion of "G-d" while Christianity employs a reverence for stasis, predetermination, anti-intellectualism, anti-science, cultural-theological curbs on argumentation or debate, and "play" vis-a-vis its sacred texts means 'leave it alone' and 'God says...'

Historically the connections between the two loosely related religions have been construed by Christians as siblings while Jews see no similarity other than the Christian cultural theft or texts and personalities.

It goes without saying that from an atheist POV, both of those traditions are rife with problems that the intersection of science and cultural anthropology often resolves and thus should suggest alterations thereto.  This is actually the fundamental problem with "beliefs"; in many religionisms beliefs dictate empirical facts.  Krauss seems to be simply making the observation that if one cannot change beliefs to fit the facts, therein lies the gap between science and religion.  That's religion's fault. If that feels "insulting" to good scientists like Huddleston, the rest of us simply have to throw up our hands at the impasse of the religionists' own making.

I know it may be tough for a PhD in physics at a religious (Christian) college to appreciate a humanities oriented distinction but, it's the 21st century and time to drop historically inaccurate canards like "Judeo-Christian." It would be nice to discuss science & culture consistent with at least anthropologically accurate terminology.

===

katherinebiel at 11:27 AM on 08/31/09

Science is accomplished by breaking down a problem into measurable variables. Whether or not a person believes in God is not part of this 'art' (and yes, I believe the crafting of a good study is an art). The problem with God is that the belief, or the concept, or the deity-whatever on wishes to call it, slops over the parameters of the study. Speaking from the position of a scientist, unless we know exactly the rules by how 'God' works, and take those into account, we cannot explicitly put God into a study! Right now, if one believes in God, it goes into the random error category of a study, because it must according to the rules of science.

*sigh* I guess its a sort of cultural joke. I'm sad that some people won't get it, or will take it the wrong way. I'm sad that although so many people seem to hate science, they use the discoveries of science in their lives every second of every day, and to further their belief systems.

Many of us scientists are artists of one sort or another, often later in our lives (when we aren't working 80-90 hour weeks) and we discover music and the visual arts. Snow would be pleased.

By a joke, I meant more of a mental exercise, putting an all powerful, natural world breaking deity into an experiment......It would make the results of experiments uninterpretable, if we always concluded that an experiment worked, or didn't work because God intervened.

[Jun 4, 2009] The future of innovation

A reader sent me this article from PhysicsWorld, which considers the nature of scientific innovation. I particularly agree with Smolin's comments excerpted below. The reward structure of academic science encourages narrow specialization far too much. Tremendous lip service is paid to interdisciplinary work, but in actuality it is very risky to undertake.

Using Smolin's analogy of hill climbing, the dominant strategy today in science is:

1) self-assess own climbing ability
2) choose suitable hill (perhaps inherited from advisor!)
3) climb to local maximum (write some relevant papers with incremental results)
4) squat on hilltop and defend against all attackers (make sure everyone cites your papers; get embedded in small community of researchers defending that hill)
5) train students and postdocs on your hilltop while secretly wishing you understood what other people were doing on their hilltops -- suppressing the curiosity that originally got you into science.

From personal experience, I can tell you that as soon as you leave your little hill to cross a valley and explore somewhere else, the citations of your previous work will plummet, inhabitants of other hills will try to repel you, and funding agencies will ask why you aren't doing mainstream stuff ("he's not serious -- he keeps jumping around"). Based on this incentive system, it is easy to understand why people behave as they do.


...returns on research investment do not arrive steadily and predictably, but erratically and unpredictably, in a manner akin to intellectual earthquakes. Indeed, this idea seems to be more than merely qualitative. Data on human innovation, whether in basic science or technology or business, show that developments emerge from an erratic process with wild unpredictability. For example, as physicist Didier Sornette of the ETH in Zurich and colleagues showed a few years ago, the statistics describing the gross revenues of Hollywood movies over the past 20 years does not follow normal statistics but a power-law curve — closely resembling the famous Gutenberg— Richter law for earthquakes — with a long tail for high-revenue films. A similar pattern describes the financial returns on new drugs produced by the bio-tech industry, on royalties on patents granted to universities, or stock-market returns from hi-tech start-ups.

What we know of processes with power-law dynamics is that the largest events are hugely disproportionate in their consequences. In the metaphor of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2007 best seller The Black Swan, it is not the normal events, the mundane and expected “white swans” that matter the most, but the outliers, the completely unexpected “black swans”. In the context of history, think 11 September 2001 or the invention of the Web. Similarly, scientific history seems to pivot on the rare seismic shifts that no-one predicts or even has a chance of predicting, and on those utterly profound discoveries that transform worlds. They do not flow out of what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” — the paradigm-supporting and largely mechanical working out of established ideas — but from “revolutionary”, disruptive and risky science.

Squeezing life out of innovation

All of which, as Sornette has been arguing for several years, has important implications for how we think about and judge research investments. If the path to discovery is full of surprises, and if most of the gains come in just a handful of rare but exceptional events, then even judging whether a research programme is well conceived is deeply problematic. “Almost any attempt to assess research impact over a finite time”, says Sornette, “will include only a few major discoveries and hence be highly unreliable, even if there is a true long-term positive trend.”

This raises an important question: does today’s scientific culture respect this reality? Are we doing our best to let the most important and most disruptive discoveries emerge? Or are we becoming too conservative and constrained by social pressure and the demands of rapid and easily measured returns? The latter possibility, it seems, is of growing concern to many scientists, who suggest that modern science is in danger of losing its creativity unless we can find a systematic way to build a more risk-embracing culture.

The voices making this argument vary widely. For example, the physicist Geoffrey West, who is currently president of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) in New Mexico, US, points out that in the years following the Second World War, US industry created a steady stream of paradigm-changing innovations, including the transistor and the laser, and it happened because places such as Bell Labs fostered a culture of enormously free innovation. “They brought together serious scientists — physicists, engineers and mathematicians — from across disciplines”, says West, “and created a culture of free thinking without which it’s hard to imagine how these ideas could have come about.”

Unfortunately, today’s academic and corporate cultures seem to be moving in the opposite direction, with practices that stifle risk-taking mavericks who have a broad view of science. At universities and funding agencies, for example, tenure and grant committees take decisions based on narrow criteria (focusing on publication lists, citations and impact factors) or on specific plans for near-term results, all of which inherently favour those working in established fields with well-accepted paradigms. In recent years, tightening business practices and efforts to improve efficiency have also driven corporations in a similar direction. “That may be fine in the accounting department,” says West, “but it’s squeezing the life out of innovation.”

...But physicist Lee Smolin, currently at the Perimeter Institute, suggests that science overall requires a much broader and more coherent approach to risky science. To see the kinds of policies needed, he suggests, it is useful to note that scientists, at least in some rough approximation, follow working styles of two very different kinds, which mirror Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science.

Some scientists, he suggests, are what we might call “hill climbers”. They tend to be highly skilled in technical terms and their work mostly takes established lines of insight that pushes them further; they climb upward into the hills in some abstract space of scientific fitness, always taking small steps to improve the agreement of theory and observation. These scientists do “normal” science. In contrast, other scientists are more radical and adventurous in spirit, and they can be seen as “valley crossers”. They may be less skilled technically, but they tend to have strong scientific intuition — the ability to spot hidden assumptions and to look at familiar topics in totally new ways.

To be most effective, Smolin argues, science needs a mix of hill climbers and valley crossers. Too many hill climbers doing normal science, and you end up sooner or later with lots of them stuck on the tops of local hills, each defending their own territory. Science then suffers from a lack of enough valley crossers able to strike out from those intellectually tidy positions to explore further away and find higher peaks.

Posted by Steve Hsu at 7:30 AM 6 comments  Links to this post

[May 15, 2009] Scientific Integrity for Economists

I am wondering how CNBC clowns can hold a Ph.D without making economic PH.Ds a joke...
The federal Office of Science and Technology Policy is taking comments on its draft principles of scientific integrity. Here's what I wrote:

I am writing to offer a comment on scientific integrity. As we know, it is important that those whose work is used to provide a scientific basis for policy decisions reveal the sources of their funding so as to avoid conflicts of interest or undisclosed potential bias. This stipulation has made gradual progress in the medical sciences in particular -- something for which we should all be grateful. Unfortunately, in my own field of economics no one makes or enforces such a rule. Economic analysis often plays a central role in decision-making, and economists are often funded by interested parties, but disclosure is nonexistent. It is unlikely that the economics profession will take the lead in remedying this situation, so we have to look to our clients. If OSTP would take a clear stand on this matter it would improve the credibility of analysis entering the regulatory process and would also have a salutary effect on the profession itself.

UPDATE: The rules for biomedical researchers may be tightening. Why can't we do this for economists?

[Apr 21, 2009] Knowledge AND Ignorance: Critique of Neoclassical Economics

Following in the tradition solidified by Samuelson (1947) during the second half of the twentieth century, there have been two trends amongst neoclassical economic theorists. The first is that neoclassical economists increasingly devise compelling, mathematically elegant hypotheses with little interest in their policy implications. The second is their reluctance to engage in conversation with alternative paradigmatic schools (eg. feminists, Marxists, Institutionalists or Post-Keynesians). In doing so they have become, as Samuels recently noted in this Journal, "anti-intellectual, believing that economics is only, or primarily, a set of techniques" (Samuels 1996: 308). Their lack of concern about being unaware of what it is that they don't know, is what I identify as ignorance-squared.

In January 1996, a group of "heterodox economists" made a presentation to the publishing Committee of the American Economics Association responsible for the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Literature, and the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Anne Mayhew, editor of the Journal of Economic Issues, speaking before the Committee, argued that not one of the publications of the Association conform to the model of scientific inquiry to which the profession pledges allegiance. She cogently argued that a small group of economists have "captured" these journals to promote mathematical complexity at the expense of issues, which incorporate "history, institutions and power". Further, the prestige of the Association and the journals is used "to narrow the discipline, to reward the excessive technical training of the prestigious graduate schools, and to stifle the advance of heterodox approaches to economics". Finally, she noted the curious state of affairs that whereas most economists do not read the American Economic Review, most want to publish an article there in order to advance their careers! (Mayhew 1996) 

Clive and Cara Beed have also shown how "quality journals" (predominantly neoclassical) are being used to set standards for both recruitment and promotion (Beed and Beed 1996). It is becoming commonplace for journals to be hierarchically ranked, using a range of diverse standards for policy purposes in the academic industry. The implication is that it is no longer sufficient for academics to publish their ideas; rather it is now necessary to publish in journals that, as Mayhew asserts, they most likely don’t read. Beed and Beed argue that it is not pedagogically sound to rank journals since ranking reveals little more than the mainstream's view of itself. More strongly, they, and others, suggest that, an interpretive, hermeneutic view would be that it is contradictory to imagine that the ideas of social science can be evaluated in any objective quality sense at all (Bohman 1991).

In what follows, the content and causes of Mayhew's and the Beeds’ articulated frustration is pursued. Recent literature on the production of knowledge and ignorance-squared is discussed and then used to investigate neoclassical economic knowledge. Subsequently, it is argued that it is fruitless to appeal to neoclassical theorists to become more methodologically pluralist or to enhance their rhetoric. It is concluded that, although a number of causes exist for the intellectual narrowing of the discipline, a fundamental answer to the query "why is this the case?" may be found in Gramsci's notion of ideological hegemony.

Ignorance-Squared

"The more I study economics the smaller appears the knowledge I have of it... and now at the end of half a century, I am conscious of more ignorance of it than I was at the beginning." (Alfred Marshall, quoted in Schumpeter, 1941: 248)

The usual methodological question in economics is, "how can one tell whether a particular bit of economics is good science?" (Hausman 1989:115). Herein is pursued a somewhat different sociological question which is not how to come to know what one doesn't know, the form of ignorance acknowledged by Marshall in the quote above; but why it is the case that neoclassical economists don't want to be aware of what it is that they don't know, which is subsequently defined as ignorance-squared.

"Ignorance", is discussed herein as the antonym of knowledge, ie. lacking knowledge or information as to a particular subject or fact. The term is not meant in a derogatory manner, but rather, is normally ascertained as the starting point in the quest for knowledge. As reflected in recent literature on ignorance-squared "(T)he greatest achievement of science… is the discovery that we are profoundly ignorant; we know very little about nature and understand even less" (Kerwin 1993: 174). Economic theories provide a formal expression of our perception of reality and all knowledge is produced through social interaction (Berger and Luckmann 1967; Bloor 1976). Ignorance does not imply merely a lack of knowledge, but also the possibility that its antonym is being produced. To supplement this assertion, it is argued that neoclassical economists, as traditional intellectuals, cultivate the social production of ignorance in the struggle for ideas. This is done through narrow pedagogy, delineation of research parameters, and by constraining the production and presentation of non-neoclassical knowledge.

Training in textbook economics and economic research systematically fosters ignorance-squared, in that students and researchers are shielded from any acquaintance with problems outside the domain of successful puzzle solving. The curriculum is always crowded with the positive heuristic of neoclassical economics; there is always too much to teach. There is never time for reflection, for perspective, for the cultivation of awareness, and most importantly, for the presentation of other contentious viewpoints, much less for the knowledge produced outside the disciplinary boundaries. When neoclassical economists restrict their own discourse, as well as their students’ ability to engage with others of the same, or related specialties, then "ignorance-squared", in the manner put forward by Ravetz (1993) is enhanced.

In neoclassical economic terms, the marginal cost of the search for particular knowledge increases, and can be prohibitively high (Wible 1995: 303). But what is not clarified by neoclassical economics is that in any social formation the allocation of resources to the production of knowledge will be determined, as are other resource allocations, through struggle, and in that struggle, both knowledge and ignorance are produced dialectically. Therefore, dominant and subordinate positions are reflected by the various paradigms within the discipline, ideologically and politically.

We are all ignorant in a variety of ways, to various degrees, with respect to specific issues, problems and questions. In fact, it is the increasing awareness of our ignorance of what there remains to know that is most special about the learning process. A taxonomy of ignorance provided by Smithson (1989:9; and 1993:135) suggests a variety of forms:

  1. All the things of which people are aware they do not know (the most recognised form of ignorance);
  2. All the things people think they know but do not (ignorance based on error);
  3. All the things of which people are not aware that, in fact, they do know (intuition);
  4. All the things people are not supposed to know but could find helpful (taboo);
  5. All the things too painful to know (psychological suppression of memory); and
  6. All the things, of which people are not aware that they do not know (ignorance-squared).

Of particular interest is the latter (ignorance-squared). There is nothing necessarily negative about the fact that we proceed through life unaware of most of what there is to know. What is argued however, is that neoclassical economists promote ignorance-squared. So as not to suggest this promotion is solely limited to economists, the reader is referred to an analogous process for physical science, as discussed by Olwell (1996). There are many obvious reasons why this process exists, some of which are intuitive. Although a query as to "why this is the case is notoriously slippery in that it reflects an appeal for simplistic reductionism, an explanatory form of reductionism can offer a prioritised list of causal explanations.

To illustrate, there are numerous reasons for promoting ignorance-squared. Given the search costs combined with specialisation, there is only so much time to devote to methodological issues. Therefore, the dominant paradigm will draw the attention of most scholars. Moreover, the more a system (of thought) is entrenched, and the longer the time it has been operating, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to change that system (Collingridge 1980). Likewise, the more a person has invested in the training required to be admitted to the neoclassical coterie, the more it is in that person's interest to prevent the depreciation of knowledge threatened by alternative modes of discourse. Another reason may be the appeal of elegant mathematically constructed neoclassical axioms. For instance, Einstein's theory of relativity became the standard textbook theory of gravitation in the 1920s. Yet, it wasn't until the 1950s that radar and radio astronomy became sophisticated enough to generate and test the theory via precise predictions with experimental uncertainties less than one percent. The general acceptance of the theory in the intervening 30 years had been largely attributed to its beauty (Weinberg 1992: 98), similar to the dominance of general equilibrium theory in economics in the second half of the twentieth century. Given the conceptual apparatus of ignorance-squared, let us now examine the production of economic knowledge that incorporates simultaneously, the production of ignorance.

Economic Knowledge

"The aim of scientific discourse is profoundly argumentative and not merely expository; [that] the goal is to persuade readers, to convince them of the validity and importance of the work, and to motivate them to acknowledge the force of the contribution by explicitly accepting and building upon it" (Charney 1993:204)

Neoclassical economists normally treat economic instability as the effect of exogenous, stochastic factors even though nonlinear economics suggests that what may previously have been considered exogenous, or random, may more likely be endogenous to capitalist social formations. As such, economic fluctuations are seen as created by the processes of capitalism itself (Baumol and Benhabib 1989; Savit 1988). This is certainly not a new idea. Marx, Keynes, Hicks, Harrod, Kaldor and Hayek all considered causes for instability which were endogenous (Zarnowitz 1985). And in most of these cases the instability was created by a nonlinear feedback process such as the Keynesian "formation of expectations" (Gans 1991:42). Generally speaking, a nonlinear system must be understood in its totality, which means taking into account a variety of constraints, boundary conditions and initial conditions. These supplementary aspects of the problem must be included in the study of linear systems, too; but (in neoclassical economics) they enter in a rather trivially assumed and incidental way (Davies and Gribbin 1992: 25 and 40). 

Examination of empirically defined problems, such as unemployment or inflation, also reflects irreconcilable differences in the frameworks or worldviews with which these problems are analysed. Those who believe that the free market is inherently stable and coordinated, with instability the result of exogenous shocks, largely fall into the neoclassical camp. Those who see endogenous factors, such as uncertainty or exploitation at work promoting instability, will normally be those working in a tributary rather than the mainstream (Brown 1981:457-58). With reference to instability, the crucial issue at odds between the groups is that of equilibrium or the tendency thereto.

Equilibrium theory itself has a number of integral constituents which, while not exclusive, include rationality, consumer and producer optimisation, malleable capital, decreasing returns, and constant returns to scale, all of which propound the pre-eminence of the tendency to equilibrium in capitalist goods, factor and money markets.

The 'rational' consumer of the mainstream economist is a working assumption that was meant to free economists from dependence on psychology (Simon 1976:131; Tversky and Kahneman 1987). The dilemma is that the assumption of rationality as intertemporally optimising is often confused with, and regularly presented as, real, purposive behaviour. In fact, the living consumer in historical time routinely makes decisions in undefined contexts. They muddle through, they adapt, they copy, they try what worked in the past, they gamble, they take uncalculated risks, they engage in costly altruistic activities, and regularly make unpredictable, even unexplainable, decisions (Sandven 1995).

One of the favourite diagrams of producer optimisation in the neoclassical text is the isoquant, showing a given output produced by different combinations of capital and labour. Different points on the isoquant represent different techniques of production, with differing capital-labour ratios. This continues to be presented to students even though neoclassical economics have themselves admitted that there is no possible way to measure aggregate capital independent of distribution, (Harcourt 1975:5-9; Robinson 1987), that much production takes place with fixed factor ratios, and that what are most often lumpy decisions are not reversible in practice (Robinson 1980:220).

The inscription of supply and demand into mathematical equations is generated by the assumption of "diminishing returns". It is becoming more evident that it is "increasing returns" which will better help us "to understand the messiness, the upheaval, and the spontaneous self-organisation of the world" (Waldrop 1992:18, 35; Arthur, 1990). The concept of increasing returns is not new in itself (Arrow 1962; Helpman 1984; Kaldor 1981 and Young 1969). What is new is that Arthur, following Kaldor’s example, places the concept within the context of nonlinearty, instability and disequilibrium. In his work Arthur divides up the profession into two world views, the neoclassical and the 'new' economics: neoclassical economics is based on diminishing returns; 19th century deterministic dynamics approaching equilibrium; homogeneous factors; no externalities; and is structurally simplistic around the concepts of supply and demand. Alternatively, 'new' economics introduces increasing returns; is evolutionary; focuses on heterogeneity and externalities; and is structurally complex and ever changing (Waldrop 1992:38; Bak and Chen 1991). Most students graduate, only having come into pedagogical contact with the former worldview.

A few neoclassical theorists have broke part of the mould and are incorporating increasing returns into the analysis of international trade and growth theory (Helpman and Krugman 1985; Krugman 1986; and Romer 1986). However, Romer, for example, makes it evident that he is not straying beyond the boundaries, by designing his analysis as, "…a well-specified competitive equilibrium model of growth. Despite the presence of increasing returns a competitive equilibrium with externalities will exist…and is capable of explaining historical growth in the absence of government intervention" (Romer 1986: 1003-1004). Nowhere does he emphasise that increasing returns also implies a downward sloping supply function and the potential of resulting disequilibrium.

We are left with the pre-eminence of equilibrium economics when the balance of supplies and demands on all spot and futures markets takes place simultaneously, (Hicks 1939; Arrow 1971; and Debreu 1959). In this purely competitive, certain, optimising world of general equilibrium, pure profits are zero. Before students are permitted to achieve this level of sophistication, they must first go through the partial equilibrium components of marginal cost and revenue relationships.

As long ago as the 1930s, a number of economists, Means (1935), Hall and Hitch (1939), then Lester (1946) and Kaplan, Dirlam and Lanzillotti (1958) all cast serious doubt on the general applicability of the conventional equilibrium analysis of price, (Mueller 1992:151). The mainstream methodological counter-proposition was that it was not important that individuals did not consciously maximise. Rather, it was only necessary that they act as if they did (Machlup 1946; Friedman 1953; Kahn 1959).

More recently, Nitzan and Bichler point out (1995 454-455) that modern corporations are not even "acting as if" they equilibrate marginal cost-marginal revenue to maximise profits. Rather, they attempt to "beat the average". References to the "average" or "normal" pervade the business literature - from the analysis of stock performance, through the stacking of country growth rates and risk premia, to the ranking of corporate profitability. In these terms, according to Nitzan and Bichler, the primary goal becomes "differential pecuniary accumulation", through which the corporation seeks to control a "larger share of the societal surplus". Consequently, success has less to do with the intuitively convincing textbook equality between marginal cost and marginal revenue, than with the capture of external contested income, thereby redistributing the available social surplus.

As is evident from the above discussion, "whenever (conventional) economics is used or thought about, equilibrium is a central organising idea" (Hahn 1982). Two fundamental assumptions of the equilibrium model in economics are 'timelessness' and 'certainty' (Kornai 1971:19-23). Neoclassical theory deals largely in logical time, which is a period during which whatever needs to happen, will happen (Henry 1983/84:219). Historical time is assumed away, implying that neoclassical economic theory has universal applicability (Georgescu-Roegen 1971:134-140).

Conterminously, neoclassical theory reduces uncertainty to a logical construct in which rational expectations are put forward in order to conform to the demands of equilibration. In contrast, "expectational" time has been the subject of attention for tributary economic paradigms in which the future is created and is not the function of deterministic assumptions of rationality (Carvalho 1983/84:269). According to Shackle, "(E)xpectational time is an aspect of a decision-maker's effort to choose a course of action in the face of uncertainty about the outcome which would flow from this course or that" (Shackle 1968:67).

One neoclassical defence is to suggest that equilibrium is only a tendency towards which the system is moving. However, Weintraub (1991) reveals the manner whereby econometricians, such as Negishi, maintain that the equilibrium contained in a model is real and intuitively justified. They do this by appealing to the "reality out there…in which it is known that the economy is fairly shock-proof….We know from experience that prices usually do not explode to infinity or contract to zero…" (Negishi 1962:638-639).

Hutchison has insisted that even "(T)he assumption of a tendency towards equilibrium implies…the assumption of a tendency towards perfect expectations, competitive conditions and the disappearance of money" (Hutchison 1938:107). Change, not rest is the characteristic 'state' of capitalism. "The essential point to grasp is that in dealing with capitalism we are dealing with an evolutionary process that is in continual disequilibrium. It may seem strange that anyone can fail to see so obvious a fact long ago emphasised by Karl Marx" (Schumpeter 1976:82).

We are left then, as noted in the assertion of Samuels, with mostly irrelevant elegance and techniques. Intricate optimisation techniques and equilibrium conditions are heaped on a small set of assumptions (Mueller 1992:159). A few methodologists, such as Hutchison, Blaug, Friedman, Caldwell and McCloskey, over the years have attempted to broaden the discussion by seeking methodological norms for both applied and theoretical economists. Hutchison and Blaug, in line with Popper's dicta, (Hutchison 1938; Blaug 1980; Popper 1959) advocated the adoption of a 'falsificationist' methodology; Friedman affirmed the benefits to be derived by economists from what has been identified by others as "methodological instrumentalism" (Friedman 1953; Caldwell 1982: 173-178); Caldwell has pushed the gentility of 'pluralism' (Caldwell 1988); and more recently, McCloskey (1986) has asked economists (in a most complicated and discursive manner) to refine their 'rhetoric' (Mäki 1995; McCloskey 1995). Why haven’t neoclassical economists paid much attention?

Economic Method and Social Interests

One might presume that neoclassical economists would most recently have given a sympathetic hearing to McCloskey’s overture for more fruitful exchange in the pursuit of knowledge. On the contrary, to a large degree McCloskey's plea for communicative rhetoric has been ignored, presumably because they have little need or desire to communicate with their heterogeneous disciplinary associates.

This lack of desire to engage in conversation with others is then passed on to the next generation. The motivated tendency to tailor one's opinions in accordance with perceived audience preferences has been long recognised by social psychologists as a feature of the process whereby people, in general, form their judgments (Kruglanski 1991:227). The perceived audience for most graduate students is their neoclassical mentors. 

In other words, McCloskey cannot have both meaningful rhetoric and neoclassical economics. If economists are not articulate, then in terms of their own theory, either they are not optimisers and are passing up a profitable opportunity, or something in their preference, endowments or technology makes articulateness unprofitable (Kurdas and Majewski 1994:341). Presuming that economists follow their own optimising logic, then the lack of need for a more pluralist articulation has to do with their control over symbolic representation. It should be remembered that, in ideological conflict, any concession of politeness will contain political concessions as well (Bordieu 1977). 

As Mayhew, and Beed and Beed suggest, the exercise of ideological power drives a portion of the full non-neoclassical transcript underground, in this instance to less reputable heterogeneous journals. In mainstream discourse, the subordinates (academic workers and students) tend to reveal only what is "safe" and "appropriate"; that which is delineated by the dominant paradigm or its ideological purveyors. Total subordinate revelation is only forthcoming in student or worker newspapers or "less reputable" heterogeneous journals, all treated with condescending contempt by the orthodoxy.

University departments, professional journals and peers form an institutional web, which provides for the career potential of any aspirant to the profession (North 1990:95). The proficiency shown in neoclassical tools, concepts and language becomes the hallmark of identification and quality. The Krueger Commission on Graduate Education, established in the United States to report on tertiary education standards in 1990, reported that department procedures "bias the selection towards good technicians, rather than good potential economists". This implies that graduate education de-emphasises creativity and problem solving as the student requires "little or no knowledge of economic problems and institutions" (Krueger 1991:1040-42). Consequently, ignorance is promoted as a qualitative manifestation of a "good economist". The result is that the dominion of organic intellectuals, representing a class position and propounding its symbolic representation, is solidified. In order to join this coterie one must accept and disseminate the ideological and political constituents of class power that it represents.

There is much more than McCloskey would have us understand. Economics is constructed around more than subjective differences of epistemology, methodological preference or appreciation of elegant techniques; the differences at the core are also political. Neoclassical economics has represented, for two hundred years, the political self-representation of autonomous, self-subsistent, and self-interest-optimising individuals. The populist works of Friedman (1962) in Capitalism and Freedom, or the more adrenalin-pumping stuff of Ayn Rand (1952 and 1957) in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged provide adroit examples of the ideological and political content in the grasp of the "Invisible Hand". It is here where the connection between promoting ignorance-squared and ideological construction is entwined.

Ideological Construction

And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society, by means of schools, etc? (Marx 1976: 502). 

The gadfly Socrates continues to epitomise the courage of seeking knowledge (Plato 1956). The attraction of Socrates is that, through his didacticism, we come to realise that the greatest knowledge we can possess is the awareness of our boundless, fathomless ignorance.

Questioning, wondering, doubting, revising and collaborating are all practices which Socrates and now McCloskey (1985) would proffer to those interested in expanding the breadth of our knowledge through communication. Yet, students, and many of their preceptors, do not know that they do not know that capital cannot be measured; that utility is metaphysical; that optimisation is non-falsifiable; that capitalism is inherently unstable; or that, as Ricardo discovered, when we say 'supply and demand' we are explaining nothing (Dobb 1975: 52 and 119). The incentive remains not to find out; or at the very least, not to recognise the numerous serious-minded non-neoclassical economists who take all of the above for granted! Rather, mainstream protagonists spend time proving to each other that what they are doing is what they should be doing; and then convincing the disciples that what they should be doing is what their mentors are doing, ie., producing "acceptable" knowledge. The entire process is justified from within by noting that economists are all optimising their utility functions (Becker 1975).

A student may actually accept what s/he is taught as normal, even justifiable, as part of the social order. Another may reject the information as "unreal", "incomplete", "too abstract", "not relevant", or "not falsifiable" and yet have no "realistic" option to present as a critical counter-claim. In either case, to survive, to pass the course, to increase their potential material enhancement upon graduation, both types of student must internalise and become technically proficient with what is served up. At the level of ideas, this symbolic production and re-production of both knowledge and ignorance-squared is replicated, with or without conscious consent (Gramsci 1971:passim).

This process of ideological domination is portrayed through the solidification of ignorance-squared. It portrays, as well, a struggle over the appropriation of symbols, a struggle over how the past and present shall be understood and labelled, a struggle to identify causes and assess blame (Parkin 1971: 79-102). By disseminating a paradigmatic discourse and the concepts to go with it as well as defining the standards of what is legitimate, a symbolic climate is created that prevents subordinates from thinking their way free. Thinking "free", is used in the sense that acts are dialectically interactive with intentions, neither consciousness nor action being "unmoved movers" (Scott 1985: xvii and 38-39). 

Conclusion

Ultimately, economic knowledge, like life, is a process and is none too solid. But then as Ivan Ilych came to see, neither are we, when, no matter how vigorously he tried to drive thoughts away, they continued to confront him (Tolstoy 1967:280-281). No matter how hard neoclassical economists try to drive away the world of complexity, it too continues to confront them. Yet, to the frustration of "heterogeneous" antagonists the neoclassical paradigm remains dominant, blatantly promoting ignorance-squared. Elegance and technique have replaced relevance. What has been shown herein is that the production of that elegance has involved the opportunity cost of simultaneously producing ignorance. Ignorance-squared is replicated amongst students given the social interests of those dominant in the paradigm. This process of producing ignorance becomes entwined with the promotion of ideology to the detriment of us all. McCloskey importunes the deaf, for dialogue with more relevant tributaries of the mainstream is not in the interests of those presently in control.

The best advice rhetorically should be exactly the opposite provided by McCloskey. Neoclassical economists should accept the advice of Frederick von Hayek's distant cousin, Wittgenstein, who, in the final sentence of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, wrote: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (Monk 1991:156 and 224). However, as it has been argued, the ability to speak and to be heard is based on much more than methodological propositions. They are, as well, functions of social interests and ideological power.

[Apr 20, 2009] Major Economic Myths Commonly Found in the Social Sciences

The clearest example of contemporary trend for the abandonment of the ‘scientific method’ in favor of either religious or secular faith-systems has resulted in social and economic catastrophes throughout human history. Perhaps one of the best known recent examples of a ‘secular faith-system’ that replaced the ‘scientific method’ occurred in Soviet Russia, following the death of V.I. Lenin and the rise of J. Stalin – and the creation of a ‘new biology’ that accompanied the collectivization of agriculture, the initiation of the ‘purge trials’ and the implementation of the First Five Year Plan (1928-32). The chief architect of the ‘new biology’ was Trofim D. Lysenko [Трофим Дисвич Лысéнко] (1898-1976) and the ‘new biology’ came to be known as Lysnkoism. Lysenko, born to a Ukrainian peasant family, was educated at the Kiev Agricultural Institute and worked as an agricultural researcher at an agricultural experimental station in Azerbaijan during the mid- to late-1920s. In 1927 the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda (Правда or ‘truth’) proclaimed that T.D. Lysenko had discovered a method to fertilize fields without using fertilizers or minerals, and that he had proved that a winter crop of peas could be grown in Azerbaijan, ‘turning the barren fields of the Transcaucasus green in winter, so that cattle will  not perish from poor feeding crop of peas, and the peasant Turk will live through the winter without trembling for tomorrow… (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trofim_Lysenko.)

 The use of the media to proclaim ‘scientific truth’ and establish a ‘politically correct’ set of scientific dogma to advance the goals of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), and enforced by the power of the state through it’s ‘apparatchiki’ [аппаратчики] (including the NKVD, forbearer of the KGB or state security [secret] police) does not conform to the Baconian ‘Scientific Method.’ Rather, this process is more akin to what John Milton had written in his Areopagitca (1644) “…the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner of the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.” (See: Boorstin, 1983, 317.)

Lysenko was the archetypal ‘scientific hero’ of the Soviet system, the intellectual counterpart of Aleksandr Stakhanov (Алекср Стаханов) the ‘industrial hero’ for whom the Stakhanovite movement (1935) was named. (For various Soviet terms, see: ‘Glossary – Soviet Union;’ available at: //fas.org/irp/world/Russia/su_glos.html.)  Such a pantheon of ‘Saints’ of  ‘scientific socialism’ provided evidence on the ability of ‘Soviet Man’ to overcome the economic and technological constraints imposed by Nature on the Soviet Union, especially its ‘continental’ and subhumid climates. The ‘science’ of Lysenko was based primarily on the work of Lamarck, the ‘theory’ of “Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics,” as the ‘driver of evolution’.  Hummm … I guess that this means that my children will inherit ALL of the knowledge that I have acquired during my lifetime! As an example of Lysenkoism, his ‘scientific’ methodology has been reported:

                        … primary procedure was a mixture of so-called ‘vernalization’ (by which Lysenko

                              generally meant anything he did to plant seeds and tubers) as well as hybridization.

                              During one period, for example, he picked a spring wheat with a short ‘stage of

vernalization’ but a long ‘light stage,’ which he crossed with another variety of wheat

with a long ‘stage of  vernalization’ and a short ‘light stage.’ He did not explain what

was meant by these stages. Lysenko then concluded on the basis of his stage theory that

he knew in advance that the cross would produce offspring that would ripen sooner

 and as such yield more than their parents and thus did not have to test many plants

through their generations.  Though scientifically unsound on a number of levels,

Soviet journalists and agricultural officials [‘apparatchiki’ (аппаратчики)] were

delighted with Lysenko’s claims, as they sped up laboratory work and cheapened it

considerably. Lysenko was given his own journals, Vernalization, in 1935, with which

he generally bragged about forthcoming successes. [www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Trofim_Lysenko), emphasis added]

The substitution of Lysenkoism for the ‘scientific method’ has a number of sources, several have already been cited above, but all find their origins in the pretenses of Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and Frederick Engels (1820 - 1895). Marxism is an economic/political system based on a mystical ‘faith’ in the Hegelian dialectical view of history. Friedrich Engels in his, Dialectics of Nature indicates all is explicable in terms of the ‘struggle of opposites’ – the ‘laws of dialectics,’ the most general laws, which may be reduced to three:

--  the law of the transformation of the quantity into quality and vice versa;

--  the law of the interpenetration of opposites; and

--  the law of the negation of the negation.

All of this nonsense sounds like the religious mystical speculations, such as the ‘coincidentia oppositorum’ of late medieval writers, including Nicholas Cusanus (St. Francis of Assisi and St. Bonaventure), or an exercise in alchemy, as described by Carl G. Jung:

                        The alchemist’s endeavours to unite the opposites culminate in the ‘chymical

marriage,’ the supreme act of union in which the work reaches its consummation.

(1963, Mysterium Coniunctionis, 89)

Russell Madden has chronicled a number of recent examples of the betrayal of the ‘scientific method’ and “The Resurrection of Lysenko” (//home.earthlink.net~rdmadden/ webdocs/Ressurrection_of_Lysenko.html.)  Quoting Robert Conquest’s, The Great Terror (1990, 296), who noted, “The triumph of Lysenkoism was the most extraordinary of all indications of the intellectual degeneracy of the Party mind…, Madden observed:

 

            While no scientist in our country has been jailed or murdered due to his beliefs, the

same insidious seeds of intellectual destruction committed in the name of political

agendas have taken root in our society – and in some instances even been nourished

by government officials and policies. Under Soviet style Lysenkoism, it became

evident that ‘[w]hen encouraged by the political system, quackery prevailed and ‘good’

scientists deferred to politically imposed scientific truth.’ In recent years, a similar

substitution of politics for reality as one’s standard for truth has made itself evident in

such areas as environmentalism, economics, and medicine (in its research on gun

ownership, cigarettes, and drugs). [Emphasis added]

Madden is not alone in his criticism of the ‘betrayal of the scientific method’ and the substitution for it of ‘junk science’. A representative, but far from exhaustive list of other examples, include:

            Deveey. 1980. “Human Population,” Scientific American

            John Maddox. The Doomsday Syndrome.

            Julian Simon. Hoodwinking the Nation

Michael Fumento. 1993. Science Under Siege.        

John Stossel. 2004. Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam

            Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media…. Perennial Currents.

Madden continues with:

                        The pattern of distortions, omissions, and lies continues to expand in ripples as

faulty or fraudulent [sic] research is selected by politically motivated individuals

and used to advance their goals of political control. In press releases and in the

halls of government, these falsehoods are passed along to a public which often

lacks the knowledge or ability to recognize and refute the pronouncements handed

down by authorities they are instructed to trust.  The issue is not simply reasonable

disagreements over interpretations of data and theories. As did their earlier brethren,

the proponents of modern-day Lysenkoism seek ‘to change…human attitudes…by

the use of naked police power,’ i.e., by appealing to government and its monopoly

on force rather than persuasion to achieve their ends.

It is well known in economics that individuals and groups have a tendency to pursue their own self-interest. Often this is accomplished by pursuing ‘rent-seeking behaviors’ – Zoltan J. Acs and Daniel A. Gerlowski have defined ‘rent-seeking’ as: “

An attempt by some interested party to alter the allocation of rents in a contractual

agreement; in general, does not create value within the organization. (1996.

Managerial Economics and Organization, 448)

In their chapter, “Distribution, Rents, and Efficiency,” they have defined ‘rents’ as:

…benefits earned by an economic resource that exceed what the resource

could willingly earn else where. (221)

 They continue by defining ‘economic rents’ as:

                        …the benefits from an activity going to a resource in excess of what is

needed to attract that resource to that activity. (222)

 And, somewhat later, 

… it is useful to think in terms of rents as being captured by some entity;

both economic and quasi-rents are said to ‘go’ to some factor of production

or, equivalently, to some party of the exchange.

 

                              In a competitive economy, there are no economic rents. The reason is clear.

                              In a competitive setting, positive economic profits attract entrants who

eliminate all rents in the long run. The obvious exception is, of course,

whether a factor of production is in inelastic (that is, fixed) supply, in which

case rents may exist in the long run. (226)

So, how does all of this ‘economic theory’ about ‘rents’ and ‘rent-seeking behavior’ relate to the betrayal of the ‘scientific method’? Well, it helps us understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of both private and public decision-making thereby providing a system of incentives or disincentives, culminating in the abandonment of the ‘scientific method’. Gwartney and Stroup – Principle # 1 Alawys and everywhere incentives matter.

... ... ...

Capitalism is inherently unstable, i.e., is beset periodically by economic crises, known variously

as – ‘economic downturns’, ‘recessions’, ‘depressions’, or ‘crashes’.  The so-called ‘market-instability’ is deemed to be a flaw in the free-market system and, therefore needs to be ‘corrected’ by the direct intervention of ‘the brightest and the best’ (aka* the self-appointed, intellectually superior bureaucrats employed by the government.) This idea had it origins in the pessimistic writings of Thomas Malthus [especially his: Principles of Political Economy, 2nd Ed. 1836] and was popularized by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [see: below]. These views were accepted as proven by John Maynard Keynes and those who adopted his theory, thereby justifying ever greater interventionist government policies. [See: J.M. Keynes.  The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936/1964)]

John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, in their widely heralded book, The Company: A Short History of Revolutionary Idea (2003), in describing the rise of the ‘modern company’ have identified several conditions essential for their founding: “First”, they note:

                        was the idea of shares that could be sold on the open market.… the naval

capitalism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries dramatically expended

the idea, bringing stock exchanges in its wake. The other idea, which had

occasionally surfaced before was limited liability. Colonization was so risky

that the only way to raise large sums of money from investor was to protect

them.     

 

The first chartered joint-stock company was the Muscovy Company, which

was finally given its charter in 1555. [the reign of Ivan IV or Ivan Groznii]

 

…the Company was given a temporary monopoly over trade routes to the

Russian port [Archangelsk]…. The company was able to raise enough money

to finance the long journey to Russia by selling tradable shares. (18, emphasis

added)

 An essential question that you must ask yourself is: ‘Just who had the power and authority to grant “a temporary monopoly over trade routes”?’ For a broader view on the issue of ‘monopoly’ and its source, see: Alan Greenspan. 1961. “Antitrust,” in Ayn Rand. 1967. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: Signet Book, 63-71. Greenspan in his discussion of the ‘westward expansion of railroads’ in the 1860s, and the initiation of governmental regulations, has written:

                        In the name of ‘public policy’ it was, therefore, decided to subsidize the

railroads in their move to the West….

 

As might be expected, the subsidies attracted the kind of promoters who

always exist on the fringe of the business community and who are constantly

seeking an ‘easy deal.’ Many of the western railroads were shabbily built:

they were not constructed to carry traffic, but to acquire land grants.

 

The western railroads were true monopolies in the textbook sense of the word.

They could, and did, behave with an aura of arbitrary power. But that power

was not derived from a free market. It stemmed from governmental subsidies

and government restrictions…. (64-5)

 

                        …. In the meantime, however, an ominous turning point had taken place in our

economic history: the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887.

 

That Act was not necessitated by the ‘evils’ of the free market. Like subsequent

Legislation controlling business, the Act was an attempt to remedy the economic

distortions which prior government interventions had created, but which were

blamed on the free market. (65, emphasis added)

At this juncture it is appropriate to add some observations made by the Nobel Laureate, James M. Buchanan, that provide further evidence buttressing Greenspan’s point:

                        From Wicksell, Buchanan concluded that governments are not

                              efficient, purely altruistic entities that effortlessly correct market

                              imperfections. Instead, governments are aggregates of individuals

                              pursuing private rather than the public interest through regulations

                              and tax laws. These private interests create wasteful lobbying

                              efforts known as rent seeking. (Emphasis added)

 

Public choice economists support strong legal rules that constrain

rent-seeking special interests from undermining  an appropriate public-

goods process.

 

At first glance, public choice theory seems to be nothing more than

common sense: Governments are collections of individuals whose

interaction is determined by the same self-interest that motivates

people in the  private sector. The simple view that government is a

collective decision-making process that altruistically solves social

problems has a long and, according to Buchanan, romantic tradition

both in political theory and in economics….his public finance models

lie outside the neoclassical mainstream belief in the collective problem-

solving model and in measurable, explicit opportunity costs… A pure

subjective-cost approach denies that the actual costs of any action can

ever be known, even by the decisionmaker(s), because the act of choice

is itself cost, subjectively perceived. A theorist adhering to this doctrine

would not carry out any benefit-cost analysis, as costs are inherently not

observable and, therefore, not measurable… (Emphasis in the original)

 

As many economists came to doubt the efficacy of large, state-funded

programs, they saw public choice theory as a way to examine what has

come to be known as government failure. For decades following Arthur

Cecil Pigou’s famous book The Economics of Welfare, economists saw

government as a disinterested agency that could correct market failures.

Buchanan and other public choice theorists altered the debate by

proposing that government may not really correct problems in the market-

place because of the wealth trading, or rent seeking, that occurs during

the legislative process… (Emphasis added)

 

Influenced by what he considered the government’s overreaching in the

1960s, Buchanan believes the closer a person can come to self-sufficiency,

the better off he is. (Emphasis added) [Robert L. Formaini. “James M.

Buchanan – The Creation of Public Choice Theory,” Economic

Insights, 8 (2); available at: www.dallasfed.org/research/ei/ei0302,

emphasis added.]

There are three critical points in Formaini’s review of Buchanan’s approach to economic relationships: (i) politicians/bureaucrats are self-interested, not altruistic, decision-makers [‘public servants’, as they like to call themselves]; (ii) as such, they engage in ‘rent-seeking’ behaviors by trading favors (e.g., legislation that benefits small cohesive ‘special interest groups’ at the expense of the majority of the citizens); and (iii) claims that government intervention in the market place to correct so-called ‘market-failures’ result in ‘government failure’…note the similarity to Greenspan’s conclusions, cited above: “an attempt to remedy the economic distortions which prior government interventions had created, but which were blamed on the free market.

Somewhat later, Micklethwait and Wooldridge have observed that such a joint-stock, limited liability company played a major role in the founding of the United States – 

The Virginia Company duly raised funds from seven-hundred-odd

Elizabethan ‘adventurers,’ including Sir Francis Bacon – and

produced, in return, no profits.

 

…. The risks of investing in voyages to the spiceries of Indonesia

would be akin to the risks of investing in space exploration today.

(19)

 

After several failed British attempts to send ventures to the East Indies,

                        It was hardly surprising that the Dutch merchants decided that state-

sponsored collusion was preferable to this. The monopoly that they

eventually secured from the state in 1602 – the Dutch East India

Company, alternatively known as the VOC (for Vereenigde Oost-

Indische Compagnie) or the Seventeen (after its seventeen-strong

board) – became the model for all chartered firms. The VOC’s

charter also explicitly told investors that they had limited liability.

Dutch investors were the first to trade their shares at a regular stock

Exchange in 1611…. All the Amsterdam hub needed to prove its

capitalistic credentials was a market crash, which duly arrived with

tulip mania in 1636-1637. (20, emphasis added)

There are several points that must be pointed out explicitly in this discourse: (i) in any economic system, regardless of its organizational structure, production involves risk taking (even in a subsistence economy, as noted by game theory); and (ii) once again, there is a tendency for equating capitalism with “a market crash.” A little thought on the matter reveals that ‘risk’ applies to all economic systems because it arises out of ‘uncertainty’. This is a well-known relationship since Frank H. Knight published his seminal work, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit (1921), but has been ignored in a most irresponsible manner. [For a brief summary of Frank Knight and his contributions, see: Robert L. Formaini. “Frank H. Knight – Origins of the Chicago School of Economics,” Economic Insights, 7 (3); available at: www.dallasfed.org/research/ei/ei0203.html.]   ‘Uncertainty’ arises from an inability ‘to know’ or ‘predict’, with any degree precision, the outcome of an event or series of interrelated events as they unfold through time. ‘Risk’, on the other hand, is, to some extent or in some manner, “susceptible of measurement.” More specifically, Knight has made the following distinction:                       

                        Hence the problem of profit is one way of looking at the problem of the

contrast between perfect competition and actual competition….

 

… the problem of profit…have arisen from a confusion of ideas which

goes deep down into the foundations of our thinking. The key to the whole

tangle will be found to lie in the notion of risk or uncertainty and the

ambiguities concealed therein…. (19)

 

But Uncertainty must be taken in a sense radically distinct from the

familiar notion of Risk, from which it has never been precisely

separated. The term ‘risk,’ as loosely used in everyday speech and in

economic discussion, really covers two things which, functionally at

least, in their causal relations to the phenomena of economic organization,

are categorically different…. The essential fact is that ‘risk’ means in some

cases a quantity susceptible of measurement, while at other times it is some-

thing distinctly not of this character; and there are far-reaching and crucial

differences in the bearings of the phenomenon depending on which of the

two is really present and operating. There are two other ambiguities in the

term ‘risk’ as well, which will be pointed out; but this is the most important.

It will appear that a measurable uncertainty, or ‘risk’ proper, as we shall use

the term, is so far different from an unmeasurable one that it is not in effect

an uncertainty at all. We shall accordingly restrict the term ‘uncertainty’ to

cases of the non-quantitive (sic) type. It is this ‘true’ uncertainty, and not risk,

as has been argued, which forms the basis of a valid theory of profit and

accounts for the divergence between actual and theoretical competition.   

(19-20)

Much later, Knight demonstrates the ‘who-and-why’ of the knowledge/risk/uncertainty phenomena:

                        …changes in conditions give rise to profit by upsetting anticipations and

producing a divergence between costs and selling price, which would

otherwise be equalized by competition If all changes were to take place

in accordance with invariable and universally known laws, they could be

foreseen for and indefinite period in advance of their occurrence, and would

not upset the perfect apportionment of product values among the contributing

agencies, and profit (or loss) would not arise. Hence it is our imperfect

knowledge of the future, a consequence of change, not change as such, which

is crucial for the understanding of our problem…. (198, emphasis added)    

 

…it is unnecessary to perfect, profitless imputation that particular occurrences

be foreseeable, if only all the alternative possibilities are known and the

profitability of the occurrence of each can be accurately ascertained. Even

though the business man could not know in advance the results of individual

ventures, he could operate and base his competitive offers upon accurate

foreknowledge of the future if quantitative knowledge of the probability of

every possible outcome can be had….knowledge is in a sense variable in

degree and that the practical problem may relate to the degree of knowledge

rather than to its presence or absence in toto.           (198-199).

[Mar 1, 2009] "The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic Economics"

Economic Lysenkoism ?

Via email:

The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic Economics, by David Colander, Hans Föllmer, Armin Haas, Michael Goldberg, Katarina Juselius, Alan Kirman, and Thomas Lux: [From the conclusion] ..."We believe that economics has been trapped in a sub-optimal equilibrium in which much of its research efforts are not directed towards the most prevalent needs of society. Paradoxically self-reinforcing feedback effects within the profession may have led to the dominance of a paradigm that has no solid methodological basis and whose empirical performance is, to say the least, modest. Defining away the most prevalent economic problems of modern economies and failing to communicate the limitations and assumptions of its popular models, the economics profession bears some responsibility for the current crisis. It has failed in its duty to society to provide as much insight as possible into the workings of the economy and in providing warnings about the tools it created. It has also been reluctant to emphasize the limitations of its analysis. We believe that the failure to even envisage the current problems of the worldwide financial system and the inability of standard macro and finance models to provide any insight into ongoing events make a strong case for a major reorientation in these areas and a reconsideration of their basic premises."

[Jan 24, 2008] As U.S. emerges from dark age, Canada's scientific edge fades by CAROLYN ABRAHAM AND ELIZABETH CHURCH

globeandmail.com

Scientists across America are celebrating the passing of the Bush administration as the end of a dark age, a bleak stretch in which research budgets shrank and everything — stem cells, sex education, climate change, and the very origins of the Grand Canyon — became a point of conflict.

... ... ...

The last time Canada let its research spending slide in the mid-1990s, the country lost so many scientists it wiped out entire departments.

Heather Munroe-Blum, principal of McGill University in Montreal, was head of research at U of T during those dark days and saw top academics in field after field pack their bags and head south.

"It was heartbreaking," she said.

The losses spurred the university community to lobby the Liberal government to give them the money to stem the tide. Those efforts paid off. Between 1997 and 2005, annual federal funding for university research more than tripled to more than $2.5-billion from $793,000.

The crisis also prompted the government to create programs to bolster the country's research expertise, such as the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure, and the Canada Research Chairs, which now support 2,000 scholars across the country.

(These programs have since become models of interest to other governments, including the Obama administration.)

The investments also triggered a building boom as state-of-the-art facilities sprang up in major cities. Before long, foreign talent followed.

Leah Cowen, an infectious diseases specialist, came to U of T from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Neuroscientist Evelyn Lambe left Yale University. Noted stem cell scientist Gordon Keller, a returning Canadian, left New York to take the helm at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Toronto. Dan Goldowitz left an endowed position at the University of Tennessee to become a Canada Research Chair in developmental neuro-genetics at UBC.

"The biggest reason for me leaving was the Bush administration … they were anti-intellectual, intolerant and the NIH pay line was plummeting," said Dr. Goldowitz, who arrived in Vancouver in 2007.

"There just seemed to be a bigger commitment at UBC and Canada-wide for research generally."

Dr. Giaever landed a Canada Research Chair in chemical genetics that came with a generous five-year package to launch her own lab at U of T's sparkling new Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research — a light and airy glass tower that won the 2008 Governor General's Medal in Architecture.

She calls it a "world-class facility" but said the biggest draw north "were the world-class collaborators."

Her husband received a tenured position through U of T's Banting and Best Department of Medical Research and both became assistant professors. They had every reason to believe they had picked the greener pastures. At the CIHR, approvals for grant applications were running in the 20 per cent range, said Dr. Nislow, just as it once had at the NIH.

But only two years into their arrival here, they have sensed winds of change in Canada's research climate — and the breezes aren't warm.

"We're seeing top scientists here having trouble getting funding," Dr. Giaever said. "Not funding renewals tends to have a much greater impact" since it could mean the closing of a lab, people losing jobs and research stopping in midstream.

"If Obama pumps up science, maybe Canada will follow suit. If not, maybe all these people Canada attracted might move."

[Jan 10, 2009] "Bullshit Promises"

naked capitalism

Our new hero Elizabeth Warren (we had always liked her posts at Credit Slips, and it's to see her kicking ass and taking names) pointed to a paper "Bullshit Promises," by Curtis Bridgeman and Karen Sandrik. It looks at the concept of "bullshit" as defined by philosopher Harry Frankfurt and discusses the implications for contract law.

For those not familiar with Frankfurt's construct, (and I wasn't), bullshit is different than lying. Lying takes place when an individual says something he knows to be untrue. Bullshit is when the speaker is indifferent to the truth. Frankfurt's example is when a politician goes on about how "our great and blessed country....created a new beginning for mankind." The candidate may or may not believe it, and in this case, he isn't saying it to be believed, he is saying it to curry favor with voters.

The authors explain:

The defining characteristic of bullshit, for Frankfurt, is that it is speech that holds itself out as describing reality, but fails to live up to the accepted standards of how we go about making such descriptions. It is not its actual truth or falsity that determines whether a statement is bullshit, but rather whether it is made with or without regard for its truth or falsity.
I have a particularly keen interest in topics like this because I am distressed with the many and varied forms of dishonest that take place routinely in our culture. Not only is there resigned acceptance of much of it, but even worse, people don't even seem to notice when it happens.

I don't mean the sort of white lies that will be with us ever and always to smooth over interpersonal relations (although research has found that they are amazingly common, with study subjects telling 20 to 30 lies a day). It's the skirting the edge of truth in business and public life that sets my teeth on edge.

Maybe I am just showing myself to be old-fashioned, but when I started out for myself nearly 20 years ago, pretty much everything was on a handshake basis, even though I would always paper it up. I've seen a decline in those sorts of situations over the years, and my colleagues have had similar experiences. In recent years, I've had a few situations where people have attempted to retrade deals radically at the 11th hour, even with a paper trail and authorizations, almost for sport, just to see what they could get away with.

As an aside, maybe that's why Clint Eastwood remains so popular. He has come to play anachronistic, cranky (most recently, in Gran Torino, bigoted) old men, who are nevertheless appealing because they adhere rigidly to antique, unabashedly masculine notions of honor, in particular, living up to one's word.

I wonder how the decay started. Politicians have always been famous for exaggerating, but Lyndon Banes Johnson took discourse down a notch (he lied so unabashedly that reporters, historically loath to say anything bad about a sitting President, started openly about a "credibility gap"). But I believe that it is commercial speech that has fostered a willingness to cut corners with the truth.

I could go on at length, but I will stop with a couple of examples. One of the mainstays of commercials is to show smiling, sometimes ecstatic or giddy, people using the product. Is a better cake mix or floor cleaner really going to make you feel all that good? No, but the images say they will. And because the distortion/overpromise is non-verbal, it's harder to parse it out and look at it clinically. That is why TV is so remarkably effective.

Another is the pervasiveness of "gotcha" practices, which are particularly popular in financial services. Rebates that have such elaborate protocols that it is clear that the company went to some length to come up with ways to reject completed forms. "Free" checking accounts that are anything but (say, a minimum balance, or only a few month no-fee period). As we discussed earlier this evening, revocable "fixed interest rate for the life of the balance" credit card offers. And then we just have good old fashioned bad faith dealing. I have taken to recording the dates and details of medical claims I submit to my insurer, Cigna, because they routinely throw them out. Two years ago, every single item I sent to them wound up in the system. Now, anywhere from 20% to 35% go missing. But I can't prove that they are systematically and deliberately "losing" claims, even though that is clearly what they are up to.

Now the list above could all be called lies, made with an intent to deceive. But we have related bullshit. I once went to a focus group (I do so out of professional curiosity) which was to test consumer reactions to a proposed advertising message for a health insurance company. I cannot recall the exact wording, but all the messages said explicitly that the insurer would put the patient's interest first, be proactive, caring, etc. I took issue, saying the ad themes were rubbish, no insurer acted that way and they would have to turn their business model on its head to do so (ironically, the insurer was CIgna).

The person running the session kept trying to force me into agreement: "But if a company were to do this, how would you feel about it?" The session leader refused to hear that if I saw an advertisement so wildly at variance with the truth, it would annoy me rather than make we think better of the company. So we have bullshit market research leading to dishonest ad campaigns.

Back to the paper for some legal highlights:

Most courts require an actual intent to deceive the promisee rather than just a lack of an intention to perform. A paradigm case would be Max Bialystock from the musical The Producers, who sold 1,000% interest in a musical, planning to make sure the musical was so bad that there would be no profits to divide so that no one would discover his fraud....

In a world of standard-form contracts, however, consumers are faced with what is arguably a much more widespread problem than lying promises. Parties with great bargaining power who deal primarily in standard-form contracts need not lie in order to get the benefits of lying. Instead, what parties can do – as we will see, what they often actually do – is to avoid making a lying promise simply by making more nuanced promises that fall short of committing them to any particular course of conduct. To be sure, these parties use the words of promising, but then they elsewhere reserve the right to cancel the contract at any time or to change its terms unilaterally.

The paper then has a very informative discussion of some of the many tricks that credit card companies play (did you know that it takes PhD level reading skills to parse the interest rate language in credit card agreements?). Cell phone companies are also devious:
....every major cell phone company has been careful not to commit itself to a particular course of performance by reserving broad rights for itself in the terms and conditions.61 For example, Verizon states that the consumer’s service is “subject” to its business practices, procedures and policies, which may be changed at any time without notice.62 Verizon then proceeds to state that “we can also change prices and any other conditions in this agreement.”63 Likewise, AT&T’s has a similar clause: “We many change any terms, conditions, rates, fees, expenses, or charges regarding your service at any time.” Again, like the credit card companies, cell phone companies are not making outright lies so long as they do not have a plan in place to increase the rates at the time of advertising the plan. But they are also not subjecting themselves to the norms of promising even as they use words that would suggest otherwise. While the consumer is committed, the cellphone company can do what it likes.
While these two industries are arguably the worst offenders, similar bad practices are common elsewhere.

The authors content that the protections under current law against such practices are too weak and suggest some modest reforms that could rein them in a great deal.

Anonymous:

 

One of the reasons I think this recession is going to be much worse than most people imagine, is exactly this culture of bullshit we swim in. You don't notice it until you've crawled up on land and had time to dry yourself off and think about it.

So, imagine tens of millions of American consumers, cut off from their credit cards and cable TV brainwashing for several months by economic necessity, and then being coaxed back into the consumerist fold. This culture looks horrible from the outside, and once you've been detoxed for a few months, you're an outsider.

I'm stingy, not because I don't enjoy fine things, but because virtually nothing you can afford to buy in this country lives up to the promises.

 
Blogger donna:
Um, did you people not grow up in the 70s?

Nixon disillusioned me forever. I've never trusted a politician since. As to advertising, credit cards, banks, television, etc., they all seem to have been deceptive pretty much my whole life.

Same as it ever was, really.

 
Blogger Yves Smith:

 

Donna,

The point is it got worse before Nixon, and appears correlated with the popularity of TV. Weirdly, Johnson and Nixon kept lyin' when the footage from VIetnam made it hard to pretend things were going well there. So we've now had nearly four decades of pols getting more clever about handling the media.

And commercials are getting ever more manipulative. I spent two years in Oz, and it was refreshing how straightforward (and often wry) their commercials are. Ours have very weird video game and dream type images, often bizarre and not funny irony. It almost seems as if a very disturbed psyche is behind some of our stuff. And I suspect a lot of research has gone into it and has ascertained that it is effective.

 
Anonymous Anonymous:

 

The de-evolution of the business contract has been a sore spot of mine for many years now. In my field, construction, its a game of who sets the standards, manufacturer of building goods, people with the development monies, right through out the entire food chain.

Ask a question to a person with authority about a clarification in a spec, may educe a response, but try and get them to sign off on it. I've seen contracts ripped up with the statement of go a head and do some thing about it we have better solicitors. In the building boom over here, I have watched as the old and knowledgeable members of the industry have be replaced with increasingly younger and more malleable individuals with little ethical behaver evident in their still maturing brains.

Ex sample to my point, Young man walks on to construction site, new khaki slacks, fashionable new black shoes, Ralph L Oxford shirt and eyes wide with pride. I greet him with a G'Day and what can I do for you, his response was Hi I'm the new site supervisor (his type would run 5 to 20 jobs depending on size). I jokingly say you guys just keep getting younger every day and his response was "well we are bringing a new youthful energy into the market". Well after I picked my jaw off he floor, I wished him luck in his new position and got back to my work. My head was filled with pictures of him in a room full of dopplegangers, just down loading what ever some construction/sales Mgr puts in front of them and send them out the door to make life hell for everyone else and all for a company cell phone/car and a title they can bullshit about at the pub to get girls and impress mates lool.

Society is sick and its the criminals, wolfs in lambs skins, sales, advertising, profit at all costs, politicians for personal gain that are the root of it.

Yes Yves, I agree with you 110% fix this component in the equation and then things will start to function with more rational behaver for everyones benefit.

Skippy
 

 Richard Smith:
 
'Bullshit' has been around for a long long time. It's acknowledged in your Constitution - that's why the right you have is to 'the pursuit of happiness', not 'happiness'. The hucksters facilitate that pursuit.

For other literary examples see "Huckleberry Finn" (the Duke and the King); or Nabokov "Nicolai Gogol" (1944).

The term "poshlost" that Nabokov uses is a nuanced version of 'bullshit'. Fake ad promises are pretty much at the core of it. You can see Nabokov pursuing that from magazines & film (40s) through to TV (50s and 60s).

Ideal exchange for fake happiness? Fake money.

Easy to see why bullshit peaks might coincide with debt bubbles.

[Jan 6, 2009] "Laffer-able"

Since the recession is caused by rich people deciding not to work, the solution, of course, is to cut capital gains taxes to they'll stop lounging around and do something productive:

Laffer-able, Marion Maneker, BP Cafe: ...Art Laffer ... was on Fast Money... The segment was on the proposed Obama tax cuts. Laffer didn’t think much of them. Instead, he wondered aloud, what if the government proposed a 6-month income tax moratorium: how great a stimulus would that be? After all, Laffer reasoned, freeing citizens from the undue burden of taxes would get them all out working harder and spending money.

Really? Did anyone on the panel believe that Americans of all income levels are sitting on the couch–or lounging out by the pool–instead of working because they’re unhappy with their income tax? They’re knocking off early because the marginal rates are too high and they’d prefer the leisure time to the minimal extra money? Fascinating. Unemployment moving toward double digits and the greatest white-collar restructuring in 15 years all because of onerous income taxes?

Sure, he’s a guest on the show–they’re being polite, right?–but not one of the traders said a word about this preposterous idea. They just nodded their heads in agreement and kept the bobbing up as Laffer launched into his idea that capital gains should not be taxed at all.

The slam against the Obama cuts was that the money would go into the mattress, not stimulate the economy. ... But why would the wealthy be any different? Cut their income tax or capital gains and they’ll put the money in the mattress right now too.

Not that cutting the capital gains tax would do anything to move money off the sidelines. Where would it go? What productive use would it be put to?

I’d share the segment with you but there’s no clip of his appearance on the CNBC site and the short post on the segment on Fast Money’s page is covered by an intrusive pop up. Maybe they’ve finally gotten a sense of shame for promoting this voodoo.

This tries to use a stabilization argument to implement a growth policy, which is a bad idea. We can debate whether cutting capital gains taxes is a good way to promote economic growth in the long-run, but it's clear that cutting the capital gains tax is a lousy short-run stimulus program. Even if it does promote new investment, and again that is a point that can be debated even in good times, in bad times it's hard to imagine a cut in capital gains motivating new investment when the economic outlook is so poor and so uncertain. In addition, you run into the same "are the projects shovel ready" problem you run into with public spending. For the most part, they aren't shovel ready and planning and constructing new investments, e.g. building a new production line, is not something that happens overnight. But no matter, the real goal here isn't stabilization anyway, and the long-run growth arguments are mostly a vehicle for obtaining the real goal: tax cuts for the wealthy. I hope Democrats don't give into this nonsense as they continue to compromise to get something passed.

Update: In comments to another post, where I agree that some type of tax cut may be needed as part of the stimulus package, and also say that "I am not thinking of the trickle down variety,"pgl says:

Tax cuts for the well to do - who are not borrowing constrained - will likely have NO aggregate demand stimulus effect as I have often argued (aka either Life Cycle or Ricardian Equivalence) models so if this is what the Republican Party have in mind - it is based on hogwash economics.  Tax cuts for the working poor, however, may be a good idea as these households will consume much of the tax cut.  I think this is what Obama has in mind.  If your argument is that we should go with the kind of tax cuts Obama campaigned on - I agree.  But tax cuts for Bill Gates is just stupid from a Keynesian point of view.

Update: And speaking of tax cuts of questionable value as a stimulus measure, Dean Baker:

More Money for Robert Rubin, Beat the Press: It looks like President-elect Obama is picking up President Clinton's promise to end welfare as we know it. Back in those pre-welfare reform days, welfare checks went to poor families. Welfare as we know it now seems to involve giving taxpayer dollars to Citigroup and other banks.

The media seem to have largely overlooked the Citigroup tax credit in their discussion of the latest items in President Obama's stimulus proposal. According to the Washington Post, the proposal will allow companies to write off current losses against taxes paid over the last 4-5 years, not just 2 years, as in current law.

There are relatively few companies that could benefit from this tax break since most companies will not have losses so large that they would need more than two years of tax payments to balance them against. But, really big losers, like Robert Rubin's Citigroup, and other badly failing financial institutions, are losing much more money in 2008 and 2009 than they earned in 2006 and 2007.

Did the political connections of Robert Rubin and others in the financial industry have anything to do with the decision of Obama's economic team to be so generous to them? I don't have an answer to that question, but the media should be asking it.

At best, I suppose you could argue this is a backdoor method of recapitalizing struggling financial institutions, but even then there are better ways to provide for recapitalization.

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