Obama EPA Censors Global Warming Skeptic


“Alan Carlin, 35-year Environmental Protection Agency veteran.” Source of caricature and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A11) In March, the Obama EPA prepared to engage the global-warming debate in an astounding new way, by issuing an “endangerment” finding on carbon. It establishes that carbon is a pollutant, and thereby gives the EPA the authority to regulate it — even if Congress doesn’t act.

Around this time, Mr. Carlin and a colleague presented a 98-page analysis arguing the agency should take another look, as the science behind man-made global warming is inconclusive at best. The analysis noted that global temperatures were on a downward trend. It pointed out problems with climate models. It highlighted new research that contradicts apocalyptic scenarios. “We believe our concerns and reservations are sufficiently important to warrant a serious review of the science by EPA,” the report read.
The response to Mr. Carlin was an email from his boss, Al McGartland, forbidding him from “any direct communication” with anyone outside of his office with regard to his analysis. When Mr. Carlin tried again to disseminate his analysis, Mr. McGartland decreed: “The administrator and the administration have decided to move forward on endangerment, and your comments do not help the legal or policy case for this decision. . . . I can only see one impact of your comments given where we are in the process, and that would be a very negative impact on our office.” (Emphasis added.)
Mr. McGartland blasted yet another email: “With the endangerment finding nearly final, you need to move on to other issues and subjects. I don’t want you to spend any additional EPA time on climate change. No papers, no research etc, at least until we see what EPA is going to do with Climate.” Ideology? Nope, not here. Just us science folk. Honest.

For the full commentary, see:

KIMBERLEY A. STRASSEL. “OPINION: POTOMAC WATCH; The EPA Silences a Climate Skeptic.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JULY 3, 2009): A11.

(Note: ellipsis in original; italics added by Strassel.)

Today’s Middle Class Citizens of the U.S. Are Better Off Than Emperor Tiberius, Emperor Napoleon, and Saint Thomas Aquinas

In conversation at the HES meeting in Denver, Pete Boettke mentioned that the opportunity cost of blogging can be very high.
The passage below is from a draft of a key chapter of a long-awaited book authored by Berkeley economist and world-renowned blogger Brad DeLong. (At least in this case, Boettke is right.)

(p. 3) Could the Emperor Tiberius have eaten fresh grapes in January? Could the Emperor Napoleon have crossed the Atlantic in a night, or gotten from Paris to London in two hours? Could Thomas Aquinas have written a 2000-word letter in two hours–and then dispatched it off to 1,000 recipients with the touch of a key, and begun to receive replies within the hour? Computers, automobiles, airplanes, VCR’ s, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, telephones, and other technologies–combined with mass production–give middle-class citizens of the United States today degrees of material wealth–control over commodities, and the ability to consume services–that previous generations could barely imagine.

DeLong, J. Bradford. “Cornucopia: The Pace of Economic Growth in the Twentieth Century.” NBER Working Paper, w7602, 2000.

“No Amount of Dancing Will Help You Learn More Algebra”


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) . . . , Mr. Willingham shows how experiments support his claims.

The trendy notion that each person has a unique learning style comes under an especially withering assault. “How should I adjust my teaching for different types of learners?” asks Mr. Willingham’s hypothetical teacher. The disillusioning reply: “No one has found consistent evidence supporting a theory describing such a difference. . . . Children are more alike than different in terms of how they think and learn.”
It turns out that while education gurus were promoting the uplifting vision of all students being equal in ability but unique in “style,” researchers were testing the theory behind it. In one experiment, they presented vocabulary words to students classified as “auditory learners” and “visual learners.” Half the words came in sound form, half in print. According to the learning-styles theory, the auditory learners should remember the words presented in sound better than the words presented in print, and vice-versa for the visual learners.
But this is not what happened: Each type of learner did just as well with each type of presentation. Why? Because what is being taught in most of the curriculum — at all levels of schooling — is information about meaning, and meaning is independent of form. “Specious,” for instance, means “seemingly logical, but actually fallacious” whether you hear it, see it or feel it out in Braille. Mr. Willingham makes a convincing case that the distinction between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners (who supposedly learn best when body movement is involved) is a specious one. At some point, no amount of dancing will help you learn more algebra.

For the full review, see:
CHRISTOPHER F. CHABRIS. “Bookshelf; How to Wake Up Slumbering Minds
Will the discoveries of neuroscientists help us to think, learn and remember?.” Wall Street Journal (Mon., APRIL 27, 2009): A13.

(Note: the initial ellipsis was added; the ellipsis internal to the first full paragraph, was in the original.)

The book being reviewed, is:
Willingham, Daniel T. Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Most Entrepreneurial Tycoons “Begin as Rebels and Outsiders”

(p. 8) Because entrepreneurship overthrows establishments rather than undergirds them, the entrepreneurial tycoons mostly begin as rebels and outsiders. Often they live in out-of-the-way places– like Bentonville, Arkansas; Omaha, Nebraska; or Mission Hills, Kansas–mentioned in New York, if at all, as the punch lines of comedy routines. When these entrepreneurs move into high society, they are usually inheritors on the way down.

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.

Government Regulatory Costs Impede Energy Innovation


Robert Metcalfe receiving the National Medal of Technology in 2003. Source of photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Metcalfe

The author of the commentary quoted below is famous in the history of information technology. His Harvard dissertation draft on packet switching was rejected as unrealistic. So he left the academy and became the main innovator responsible for making packet switching a reality, through the ethernet.
(He is also the “Metcalfe” behind “Metcalfe’s Law” about the value of a network increasing at a faster rate than the increase in the network’s size.)

(p. A15) . . . new small reactors meet important criteria for nuclear power plants. With no control rods to jam, they are far safer than the old models — you might well call them nuclear batteries. By not using weapons-grade enriched fuels, they are nonproliferating. They minimize nuclear waste. And they’re economical.
. . .
As venture capitalists, we at Polaris might have invested in one or two of these fission-energy start-ups. Alas, we had to pass. The problem with their business plans weren’t their designs, but the high costs and astronomical risks of designing nuclear reactors for certification in Washington.
The start-ups estimate that it will cost each of them roughly $100 million and five years to get their small reactor designs certified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. About $50 million of each $100 million would go to the commission itself. That’s a lot of risk capital for any venture-backed start-up, especially considering that not one new commercial nuclear reactor design has been approved and built in the United States for 30 years.
. . .

As we learned by building the Internet, fiercely competitive teams of research professors, graduate students, engineers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are the best drivers of technological innovation — not big corporations, and certainly not government bureaucracies. So, if it’s cheap and clean energy we want, we should clear the way for fission energy start-ups. We should lower the barriers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for the approval of new nuclear reactors, especially the new small ones. In particular, we should drop the requirement that the commission be reimbursed for reconsidering new fission reactor designs.

For the full commentary, see:
BOB METCALFE. “The New Nuclear Revolution; Safe fission power is our future — if regulators allow it..” Wall Street Journal (Weds., JUNE 24, 2009): A15.
(Note: ellipses added.)

Free-Range Pork Carries More Disease

(p. A19) Is free-range pork better and safer to eat than conventional pork? Many consumers think so. The well-publicized horrors of intensive pig farming have fostered the widespread assumption that, as one purveyor of free-range meats put it, “the health benefits are indisputable.” However, as yet another reminder that culinary wisdom is never conventional, scientists have found that free-range pork can be more likely than caged pork to carry dangerous bacteria and parasites. It’s not only pistachios and 50-pound tubs of peanut paste that have been infected with salmonella but also 500-pound pigs allowed to root and to roam pastures happily before butting heads with a bolt gun.

The study published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease that brought these findings to light last year sampled more than 600 pigs in North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin. The study, financed by the National Pork Board, discovered not only higher rates of salmonella in free-range pigs (54 percent versus 39 percent) but also greater levels of the pathogen toxoplasma (6.8 percent versus 1.1 percent) and, most alarming, two free-range pigs that carried the parasite trichina (as opposed to zero for confined pigs). For many years, the pork industry has been assuring cooks that a little pink in the pork is fine. Trichinosis, which can be deadly, was assumed to be history.
. . .
Let’s not forget that animal domestication has not been only about profit. It’s also been about making meat more reliably available, safer to eat and consistently flavored. The critique of conventional animal farming that pervades food discussions today is right on the mark. But it should acknowledge that raising animals indoors, fighting their diseases with medicine and feeding them a carefully monitored diet have long been basic tenets of animal husbandry that allowed a lot more people to eat a lot more pork without getting sick.

For the full commentary, see:
JAMES E. McWILLIAMS. “Free-Range Trichinosis.” The New York Times (Fri., April 10, 2009): A19.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The Epistemological Implications of Wikipedia


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

I think the crucial feature of Wikipedia is in its being quick (what “wiki” means in Hawaiian), rather than in its current open source model. Academic knowledge arises in a slow, vetted process. Publication depends on refereeing and revision. On Wikipedia (and the web more generally) knowledge is posted first, and corrected later.
In the actual fact, Wikipedia’s coverage is vast, and its accuracy is high.
I speculate that Wikipedia provides clues to developing new, faster, more efficient knowledge generating institutions.
(Chris Anderson has a nice discussion of Wikipedia in The Long Tail, starting on p. 65.)

(p. A13) Until just a couple of years ago, the largest reference work ever published was something called the Yongle Encyclopedia. A vast project consisting of thousands of volumes, it brought together the knowledge of some 2,000 scholars and was published, in China, in 1408. Roughly 600 years later, Wikipedia surpassed its size and scope with fewer than 25 employees and no official editor.

In “The Wikipedia Revolution,” Andrew Lih, a new-media academic and former Wikipedia insider, tells the story of how a free, Web-based encyclopedia — edited by its user base and overseen by a small group of dedicated volunteers — came to be so large and so popular, to the point of overshadowing the Encyclopedia Britannica and many other classic reference works. As Mr. Lih makes clear, it wasn’t Wikipedia that finished off print encyclopedias; it was the proliferation of the personal computer itself.
. . .
By 2000, both Britannica and Microsoft had subscription-based online encyclopedias. But by then Jimmy Wales, a former options trader in Chicago, was already at work on what he called “Nupedia” — an “open source, collaborative encyclopedia, using volunteers on the Internet.” Mr. Wales hoped that his project, without subscribers, would generate its revenue by selling advertising. Nupedia was not an immediate success. What turned it around was its conversion from a conventionally edited document into a wiki (Hawaiian for “fast”) — that is, a site that allowed anyone browsing it to edit its pages or contribute to its content. Wikipedia was born.
The site grew quickly. By 2003, according to Mr. Lih, “the English edition had more than 100,000 articles, putting it on par with commercial online encyclopedias. It was clear Wikipedia had joined the big leagues.” Plans to sell advertising, though, fell through: The user community — Wikipedia’s core constituency — objected to the whole idea of the site being used for commercial purposes. Thus Wikipedia came to be run as a not-for-profit foundation, funded through donations.
. . .
It is clear by the end of “The Wikipedia Revolution” that the site, for all its faults, stands as an extraordinary demonstration of the power of the open-source content model and of the supremacy of search traffic. Mr. Lih observes that when “dominant encyclopedias” were still hiding behind “paid fire walls” — and some still are — Wikipedia was freely available and thus easily crawled by search engines. Not surprisingly, more than half of Wikipedia’s traffic comes from Google.

For the full review, see:
JEREMY PHILIPS. “Business Bookshelf; Everybody Knows Everything.” Wall Street Journal (Weds., March 18, 2009): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The book being reviewed, is:
Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World’s Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

“Nothing Will Ever Be Attempted if All Possible Objections Must Be First Overcome”

(p. 23) Mr. J. R. Simplot had entered the food processing business, without any clear notion of how to produce dried onion powder or flakes. Once again he followed his lifelong precept of entrepreneurship: “When the time is right, you got to do it.” His rationale is written more elegantly in metal on a small plaque that has stood on Simplot’s desk–and has greeted him each time he pulls up his chair–for some twenty-five years: Nothing will ever (p. 24) be attempted if all possible objections must be first overcome. The objections to signing a contract for delivery of 500,000 pounds of dried, powdered, or flaked onions–without drier, pulverizer, or flaker, or any clue of how to build them–seemed altogether prohibitive. But J. R. Simplot struck when the time was right.

Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Increase in Prizes to Advance Innovation

SciencePrizes2009-06-20.jpgSource of graphic on past prizes: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) Are we impatient with NASA? Google offers $30 million in prizes for a better lunar lander. Do we like solving practical puzzles? InnoCentive Inc. has posted hundreds of lucrative research contests, offering cash prizes up to $1 million for problems in industrial chemistry, remote sensing, plant genetics and dozens of other technical disciplines. Perhaps we crave guilt-free fried chicken. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers a $1 million prize for the first to create test-tube poultry tissue that can be safely served for dinner.

Call it crowd-sourcing; call it open innovation; call it behavioral economics and applied psychology; it’s a prescription for progress that is transforming philanthropy. In fields from manned spaceflight to the genetics of aging, prizes may soon rival traditional research grants as a spur to innovation. “We see a renaissance in the use of prizes to solve problems,” says Tony Goland, a partner at McKinsey & Co. which recently analyzed trends in prize philanthropy.
. . .
Since 2000, private foundations and corporations have launched more than 60 major prizes, totaling $250 million in new award money, most of it focused on science, medicine, environment and technology, the McKinsey study found.
. . .
In growing numbers, corporate sponsors are embracing the prize challenge as a safe, inexpensive way to farm out product research, at a time when tight credit and business cutbacks have slowed innovation. Venture-capital investments have dropped by almost half since last year, reaching the lowest level since 1997, the National Venture Capital Association recently reported. “Here is a mechanism for off-balance-sheet risk-taking,” says Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation. “A corporation can put up a prize that is bold and audacious with very little downside. You only pay the winner. It is a fixed-price innovation.”

For the full article, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “SCIENCE JOURNAL; The Science Prize: Innovation or Stealth Advertising? Rewards for Advancing Knowledge Have Blossomed Recently, but Some Say They Don’t Help Solve Big Problems.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 8, 2009): A9.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The McKinsey study mentioned in the quotes above, was funded by the Templeton Foundation, and can be downloaded from:

McKinsey&Company. “”And the Winner Is …” Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.” McKinsey & Company, 2009.

(Note: ellipsis in study title is in the original.)

The Conflict Between Science and Faith

Professor Krauss is a physicist at Arizona State University.

(p. A15) My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

— J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a “god, angel, or devil” will interfere with one’s experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.
Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.
While such a leap may not be unimpeachable it is certainly rational, as Mr. McGinn pointed out at the World Science Festival. Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world’s organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an “atheist absolutist,” a “reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions.”

For the full commentary, see:

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS. “OPINION: God and Science Don’t Mix; A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can’t act like one.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JUNE 26, 2009): A15.

(Note: italics in original.)