Second thoughts

by John Quiggin on August 5, 2016

In a recent post, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

The link on central planning gives a full explanation of my change of position, so I’ll leave it at that.

As regards, war I was, before the Iraq war, a reasonably strong supporter of “humanitarian intervention” and, in particular, of the war in Afghanistan. In the leadup to the Iraq war, I was willing to give Bush and particularly Blair the benefit of the doubt for a long time. Partly as a result of that war, and subsequent episodes, and partly through rethinking the issues, I’m now deeply sceptical of any argument for war, including humanitarian intervention. More generally that scepticism applies to any case for political violence, including revolutionary violence.

On climate change, I’ve made several, interrelated shifts from the position I set out in the linked post from 2004. First, and in response to the massive decline in the cost of renewable energy (solar PV and wind), I’ve drawn the conclusion that renewables provide a feasible basis for decarbonizing the economy, while nuclear power does not.[2] The plummeting cost of solar also implies a much lower cost for replacing coal and gas with renewables and therefore a smaller increase in the implied cost of carbon-free electricity. That in turn means that the goal of decarbonizing the economy can probably be reached in large measure through regulatory policies of various kinds, with only a modest increase in cost. Since there is much more effective political resistance (particularly on the political right) to price-based policies and market mechanisms than to regulations and tax breaks, it makes sense to go this way.

Those aren’t the only issues on which I’ve changed, but they are a sample. I’ll conclude, inevitably, with an apparently apocryphal[3] link to Keynes.

fn1. Even more dangerous is a willingness to defend views dictated by tribal affiliation, regardless of the facts, and of the need to abandon previous positions the moment they become inconvenient. That might seem like a source of political strength in the short run, as it was for the US Republican Party for many years, but the endpoint is a movement run by people like Palin and Trump.

fn2. One of the more striking instances of derp in the energy debate is the continuing prevalence of people, mostly on the right, who concluded in the early 2000s that nuclear power was the best option, and who continue, not merely to maintain this view in the face of the evidence but to argue that the failure of environmentalists to advocate nuclear power represents a denial of evidence comparable to climate science denial. Unfortunately, this argument is assisted by handful of people on the pro-climate side, notably including George Monbiot, who’ve overcorrected their previous outright rejection of nuclear power.

fn3. As with Einstein, Keynes appears to be a natural recipient of credit for clever things he might well have said, but didn’t.



Lee A. Arnold 08.05.16 at 2:13 am

I changed my mind from believing that technological innovation and economic growth were unavoidably destructive to the biosphere, to realizing that it needn’t be destructive at all.

(But population growth is a different story, and there is some new evidence that population growth may not taper off in mid-century as had been projected.)


Dan Cole 08.05.16 at 2:19 am

Cassander’s comment is not so much a defense of climate deniers as a confession that they hold an indefensible position.


Gabriel 08.05.16 at 2:34 am

Tu quoque, the favourite logical fallacy of the Right, should never be indulged like this. It only encourages them. The effort to refute the accusation is always orders-of-magnitude more than to make it.


Rich Puchalsky 08.05.16 at 2:51 am

JQ: “That in turn means that the goal of decarbonizing the economy can probably be reached in large measure through regulatory policies of various kinds, with only a modest increase in cost. Since there is much more effective political resistance (particularly on the political right) to price-based policies and market mechanisms than to regulations and tax breaks, it makes sense to go this way.”

Yahoo, JQ has finally been convinced. (Yes, OK, I know that that had nothing to do with your change of opinion on that subject.)

What is even more rare than changing one’s own mind is changing someone else’s mind about anything. I remember, maybe a decade ago I was writing that no one changed anyone else’s opinion about anything on the Internet and Walt commented to say that I’d convinced him of something — probably about the merits of an SF series — and it was shocking. It’s an break in the natural order of things.


benklebe 08.05.16 at 2:53 am


neoreactionaries in particular will tu quoque all the damn day.


John Quiggin 08.05.16 at 2:57 am

Actually, Rich, your arguments did have an impact. The facts helped, of course.


Lord 08.05.16 at 4:07 am

Actually I wonder if most people don’t hold most beliefs lightly unless they are advancing them, or they are choosing them to confirm their other beliefs, or to reject the beliefs of others they disagree with on other subjects, or simply as motivated reasoning to avoid their consequences and implications and are willing to lie to themselves as much as others.


dr ngo 08.05.16 at 4:30 am

I was in favor of the US involvement in Vietnam, and actually volunteered to speak on behalf of US policy to a couple of British groups in the mid-1960s. (I was respectfully listened to at Eton College, not so much amid the Dorking Socialists.) A few years later I wound up in the US Army, though not, by the skin of my teeth, in Vietnam. My views on the VN War evolved to opposition, in part by the developments in the War itself (e.g., the Tet Offensive), but also in part by seeing how the Army worked. What I saw was an organization that consistently lied to itself about everything under the sun, including the making up of minutes of meetings that never happened (my particular contribution), the forging of scores of signatures of people who were no longer around to sign (I helped with that one), and in view of an imminent inspection, the borrowing of materials we were supposed to have but didn’t, and the hiding of materials we weren’t supposed to have but did. (By loading up a 2-ton truck and driving it out to the firing range for the day.) This helped convince me of what more perceptive observers had concluded years before: official statements as to what was happening in Vietnam were not to be believed.

I think this constitutes evidence, and I certainly – if tardily – changed my mind.


js. 08.05.16 at 4:46 am

Eh, people change their minds. To keep this CT-relevant, Harry’s posts on teaching/academia made me deeply rethink the relationship between faculty and administration—and their complicated relation to some of the deeper woes of academia. (Admittedly, the distance afforded by leaving academia helped a bit.)

Sorry if this is derail-ish, JQ. Do feel free to delete or caution me.

Actually, also sorta on (my own) topic, JQ’s posts about Southern whites as an ethnicity is something I thought about a lot. Ultimately I did not change my mind, but I gave it long, honest consideration.


Brett 08.05.16 at 4:47 am

I changed my mind on immigration, for certain. I used to be much more in favor of restrictions – in fact, I thought we’d be doing Mexico a favor in restricting immigration because they’d no longer be able to “use” the US as a “safety valve” for societal problems.

I believed in global warming, stopped believing in it for a while, then started believing in it again.


sidd 08.05.16 at 5:25 am

I remember being unconvinced by Hansen’s US Senate testimony in 1988. That turned out to be my own deficiency for i was otherwise occupied, and had not the time to investigate in detail. Within a decade, especially after the Pinatubo and other eruptions, and the beautiful modelling thereof, I was convinced.



derrida derider 08.05.16 at 5:45 am

Its true our tribalism is a real barrier to changing our minds in the face of evidence – an even bigger barrier than losing face to others. Indeed I find as you get older its harder to make the effort – we become what the Calvinists call “hardened in sin”.

Things on which I’ve changed my mind in the last decade? Hmm … let me see. Well, nuclear power – I used to be pro it but eventually realised I was only so because of my annoyance at the FUD being put about in opposition to it. John as much as anyone made me see it for what I now think it is – safe enough but too expensive.

Mind you, I think it’s like John’s case for regulation versus price mechanisms in renewables (about which I remain unconvinced, BTW). Abating carbon is so vital that if in fact we can induce Big Energy to accept AGW by telling them shiny new nukes will make them even richer than oil – well then that’s what we should do, however economically wasteful. It’s cold political judgement rather than moral fervour that’s called for here.

Then there’s Iraq – I was always against the war but thought calls for hanging the perpetrators as war criminals were way over the top. The more I’ve learnt of it, the more I look longingly at the ICC. It changed my mind alright – back to my youthful Vietnam-induced contempt for the military/security state.


dr ngo 08.05.16 at 7:43 am

I find as you get older its harder to make the effort – we become what the Calvinists call “hardened in sin”.

There was an old man who was always playing the violin. But he played only one note, day and night. Night and day, the same note.

His long-suffering wife eventually said to him: “Henry, I’ve noticed that when other people play the violin they move their fingers around, and even bow on different strings. Maybe you could try that?”

Said he: “Ah, they’re looking for the place. I’ve found it.”


Gareth Wilson 08.05.16 at 9:58 am

The Brexit vote is making me have second thoughts about income inequality. I still don’t think people are actually being harmed by it. But people do seem to be remarkably indifferent to the overall health of the economy, to the point where they’ll cheerfully vote themselves out of a free-trade bloc of half a billion people. Maybe they think only the rich are benefiting from it.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.16 at 10:31 am

I’ve also changed from thinking that climate change is 1. an immediate threat to the survival of wildlife biodiversity (due to the added condition of habitat fragmentation) + 2. an increasing threat to international security (due to changes in freshwater availability causing human population movements, etc.: along the lines of existing military studies of climate change) + 3. a long-term threat for the total human economy, which we might be able to work around.

Now I’m frightened that #3 could be rather immediate and devastating, within a decade or two. The under-modeling of Arctic ice loss is alarming. We don’t know enough about north/south hemispheric climate dynamics to rule out a 1-year warming of the Arctic area that is hot enough to melt the permafrost and shoot a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere, causing a 1- or 2-year heatspike that would extinguish 99% of everything, leaving just a few of each terrestrial species. (Then it would cool-off again very quickly, due to the worldwide smoke from forest fires etc., and the land would be repopulated very quickly.) I don’t know how paleo evidence can rule out this possibility: it might happen without leaving a discernible bottleneck in the fossil records, because those records are spotty and not well-resolved. It may have occurred several times in eras of greater volatility of climate.


bob mcmanus 08.05.16 at 10:50 am

15.2: Well, yeah, I am expecting it, and suspect Quiggin will change his mind on all three of the propositions within the next few years

I hate hate the way the phrase “Central Planning” is used here. Is centrally planning 5% of the economy utter idiocy that must be resisted with force? 10%? I suspect y’all mean 100% centrally planned straw soviets, but since y’all mention Hayek I can’t be sure.

I suppose the 2016 Democratic Platform plank on climate change needs, according to point one in OP, a strong repudiation. National Mobilization? Might be some planning goin on there.

“We believe the United States must lead in forging a robust global solution to the climate crisis. We are committed to a national mobilization, and to leading a global effort to mobilize nations to address this threat on a scale not seen since World War II. In the first 100 days of the next administration, the President will convene a summit of the world’s best engineers, climate scientists, policy experts, activists, and indigenous communities to chart a course to solve the climate crisis.”


bob mcmanus 08.05.16 at 11:02 am

I am sorry to wax sarcastic, but in attacking “central planning” by which maybe you mean using the Gov’t Eniac to set the price of oranges on Tuesday, not sure, you definitely and immediately and obviously enable the libertarians and right anarchists who agree with you and are actively working to get gov’ts out of the road and school businesses. Today.

I glanced at the Red Plenty book and threads and quickly stepped away.


John Quiggin 08.05.16 at 11:11 am

@3, @5 I agree on rightwingers who use tu quoque. Still even if the use of tu quoque marks the speaker out as a dishonest shill (certainly true of cassander), and there is no chance htat a response will convince them (again true of cassander), it’s important to make sure that we are not, in fact, like them as they claim. In particular, having presented ourselves as the reality-based side of the debate, we need to be clear that we are paying attention to the facts.


Ronan(rf) 08.05.16 at 11:28 am

I would say my biggest turnaround was against my belief in the various myths of Irish nationalist history (and sympathy for the PIRA). I’m not sure if that counts though as it was more growing out of youthful certainties than any great intellectual enlightenment.
I feel myself turning a little *against* some of the stronger claims made for immigration. I’m still (relative to the general consensus) pretty pro immigration but (1) I think a lot of the arguments in favour are overblown (2) a lot of the research making the case in favour seems either trivial or arguing from normative priors (3) I don’t see how a significant increase in immigration is in any way politically feasible (4)the negative affects on developing countries seem either underplayed or assumed away (5) it seems a really bad solution to deep, complicated issues with development
The moral case seems more compelling to me as a bog standard liberal, how can you prevent people moving to improve their position/insist they remain in circumstances they don’t feel they can prosper in, particularly as the benefits to the migrant are the strongest case for . And This would make me a huge hypocritic as I have moved in the past and will again in the future. More privileges for the privileged, let the rest suffer, isn’t much of a political philosophy .


Doug T 08.05.16 at 11:40 am

Going in a slightly different direction, this is certainly not a problem just in politics, but is also present in academics, something nodded at in the original post. I remember being struck as a grad student with how deeply invested so many scientists seemed to get in specific theories, to the point that there were often well defined camps that would coalesce around competing ideas. (The big deal when I was in school back in the 90’s was high temperature superconductivity–was it d-wave or s-wave pairing? No idea how the debate ended up, but since a local professor had developed the d-wave theory, by god every single professor at Illinois was all in on the d-wave side of things.)

So, far from the theoretical ideal of truth seeking scholars, you end up with something far closer to an American legal style system of adversarial advocates, with professors on each side attempting to spin all new evidence to support their own pet theory. (As a side note, it’s possible that this sort of outcome is actually beneficial to advance knowledge and the state of the art, with ego spurring competition and a quest for evidence to support one’s own views. Or maybe the unwillingness of folks to give up their old beliefs slowed things down.)

I can’t directly speak to other fields, but in the history I’ve read, an identical process seems to happen there. Once a scholar comes up with an idea, they’re likely to be a bitter ender, fighting a rearguard action against new and inconvenient facts, no matter the odds.

Anyway, given that this is the case in completely abstruse scientific issues, it’s no surprise that the phenomenon is even stronger when it comes to political issues where questions of values and identity creep in.


bjk 08.05.16 at 11:45 am

Head Start has been extensively studied and shown to be a failure. Not shown a failure by right wing think tanks, but by 10-year study completed by HHS itself. I pointed this out to John Quiggin and he of course entirely dismissed the study without reading it: “The HeadStart lie has already been noted – this talking point is foundational for the Right.” Once the actual facts were again brought to his attention, this is the best he could do: “It is negative evidence, though the statistical power of tests like this is quite low, even with a sample size of 5000.” 5000! But that wasn’t enough, so he continued to attack the very person who had brought facts to the debate: “By contrast, the approach of the right, exemplified by bjk is to look for talking points to support predetermined positions and to resort to snark when the evidence goes the wrong way.”

Comical! Really very comical. Of course, if a 10 year, 5000 person study won’t change Quiggin’s mind, nothing will. He has “predetermined positions” and “resorts to snark when the evidence goes the wrong way.”


John Garrett 08.05.16 at 12:53 pm

In a recent interview, Charles Koch waxed endless and eloquent about how scientific inquiry, discourse and objectivity led to truth — but when climate change came up, it was the same old horsedoodoo. So much for changing your mind.



Mike McNally 08.05.16 at 12:55 pm

Re: Nuclear, Viability for Climnate Mitigation and (tangentially) Monbiot

As a quick pointer on this, I’m a supporter of Nuclear power research and development focused on alternative reactor technologies. Current reactor technologies (even the gold standard CANDU reactors, but particularly the horrendous pressurised water reactors) are pretty terrible regarding environmental impact, risk, and economics. The designs are basically cold war legacy plutonium production factories with a tacked on power generation capacity (if any nuclear engineers are reading feel free to wince at my oversimplification, but anyway …)

Research on new nuclear has substantially stalled. After Fukushima, the German pull-out from it’s collaboration with South Africa on pebble bed reactors (PBR’s) has stymied the closest thing to a practical and safe nuclear technology we had.

Unfortunately, like many technologies, PBR requires a substantial economic loss before it can cross the threshold into profitability, and requires a substantial engineering and production infrastructure to make sense re: economies of scale. (I’ll just point out here that Solar has had a direct market and incentive to innovate through the heavily subsidised space industry for the last 50 years, without requiring profitable civil energy generation.)

Unfortunately, a substantial ‘pivot’ in technological infrastructure will often require enormous subsidy from the rest of society before it becomes ‘economical’ to work.

And in the spirit of the above discussion – my biggest pivot has probably been both my adolescent shift dramatically away from religion and towards what I could loosely say was ‘revolutionary socialism’ and then as I’ve aged towards reconcialiation with non-fundamentalist beliefs of all stripes and away from revolutionary politics and towards soft (chomskian) Anarchy.

Also, as a working scientist in a fairly ‘fresh’ field, I abandon my ideas on a daily basis as new evidence or context appears. I suspect my academic ‘hunkering down’ that Doug T refers too is often at the very edge of mature fields (superconductivity was pretty mature by the 90’s,) where the possibility space is narrowed down to a few discrete possibilities which are well known, and there isn’t neccessarily any favoured reasoning for one choice. Then the idea you choose is basically your ‘favourite.’

Of course you do occasionally get person A who’s been trying to do an experiment one way for 40 years, and then person B succeeds with a different method. And person A then uses their influence to discredit the method and cast doubt on the whole affair, using their 40 years of experience as a stick to hit person B. This is rare though (I know of one undisputed case.)

Um. Maybe I’ll jut add my URL and blog this next time. Sorry for the long post.


Thomas Beale 08.05.16 at 1:39 pm

I’m an engineer and reasonably capable of understanding things like nuclear power station engineering as a costed project at a coarse-grain level. I’ve tried a few times to get my head around the total equation of nuclear power, from mining and all its costs and financing, to the power station construction part, operation and its costs, costs of contingency disaster management and decommissioning. It’s fiendishly difficult if not impossible to do this because there are so many hidden costs and externalities. I am far from convinced that any reliable costs or time to delivery of even just the central construction project e.g. of Hinkley can be known to better than a factor of 3. I gave up trying to compute any sort of overall TCO.

My experience from massive gov projects in IT (e.g. the NHS programme for IT, a £9bn epic failure of planning and deployment) is that human institutions, especially big ones – whether public like NHS or private like EDF – simply cannot estimate the real costs of any large project in the future. Most mega-IT and civil projects in the world prove this (submarines are always good example). The situation is MUCH WORSE when the thing being built has never been attempted before.

So we have to assume that whatever cost and delivery time is stated by the proposers e.g. of a new nuclear plant, are fiction and can be assumed to be tripled or worse, and the risks will be far worse than initially thought as well.

My point here is that while Nuclear power appears to be an on-paper acceptable and reasonable response to problems of pollution and climate change, but for all sorts of contingent reasons, it cannot be proved so. For people who don’t start with the assumption that calculating cost, delivery and TCO of nuclear power is essentially unknowable in advance, nuclear power appears to be something you can take an in-principle stand on (Lovelock, Monbiot, …), but that’s probably an error.

Climate change is a tougher proposition but in a different way. I am not a sceptic of the basic claim, but I find it difficult to put too much faith in any precise projection about the future, because the complex system in question contains (as far as we know) at least some unpredictable feedbacks whose signs are not even guaranteed over time, e.g. the effect of albedo. OTOH if a reliable gross measure of stored latent heat in atmospheres and oceans can be achieved, and the trend in that heat capture, then there is no argument (experts seem to assume that melt rate of Arctic ice is a good enough proxy for this). So with climate change, the question isn’t so much ‘do you believe in global warming’ or not, it’s what kind of global warming? Which projections do you believe in?

If the question is: what’s the best response? I think we have no way of knowing, because we simply don’t know the forward trajectory of the climate while the various feedback loops are in force. Will sea level rise be the first main problem, or extreme weather events? Or expansion of the zone of tropical diseases? Or access to fresh water leading to wars? In those cases, anyone proposing a particular course of action is doing so without evidence.

If the goal is simply to stop CO2 being produced, then it’s still difficult. First, you have to prove to yourself that doing so will have a useful effect if we start now (i.e. it’s not too late). Even if you can do that, it might seem obvious to claim that renewable energy should be implemented as an emergency measure and coal, oil etc stopped. But that’s not realistically possible either, without sinking the world economy. The rate at which renewables can replace carbon will be rather slow in reality. Given that, what’s the balance of expenditure on that and on amelioration of aforesaid other disasters? Noone can know. If it is too late to do anything about CO2, then a massive clean energy conversion is in fact not the main path to follow in the short / medium term – disaster management is.

My feeling is that the unknowable scale and sign of real world contingencies will often (usually?) defeat adherence to an in-principle stand on many pressing issues. Maybe we are all doomed to flip-flop…


kent 08.05.16 at 1:47 pm

How many times have I changed my mind based on evidence? Constantly! Of course. Like everyone.

I changed my mind as to how likely I think it is that flossing is important. I changed my mind about the likelihood that there will be major wars over water after reading the Scientific American article about desalination (highly recommended, by the way). I changed my mind about the likelihood that I may want to move to Barcelona after reading that story about “Superblocks.” All this just in the last couple of days.

I seem to change my mind almost weekly as to how likely I think it is that Donald Trump will win the election.

I work as a real estate appraiser. We deal with new evidence all the time, and if we don’t change our opinions (about markets, economic factors, cap rates, supply & demand, etc.) based on the evidence, then we are literally in violation of the law. So, yeah, I change my mind about something in our local real estate market at work at least once a week, and probably more often than that.

Now, sure, changing your mind about fundamental principles of politics is obviously much rarer than changing it about matters of fact. But global warming is supposed to be about matters of fact! Either the globe is warming, or it is not. A lot of evidence needs to be weighed, for and against, and it’s not as easy as some other factual matters. But if you can’t use evidence to assess the likelihood of that reality, and change your mind according to where the evidence leads you, there is something seriously wrong with you.


Rich Puchalsky 08.05.16 at 1:54 pm

Thomas Beale: “First, you have to prove to yourself that doing so will have a useful effect if we start now (i.e. it’s not too late).”

This particular problem can always get worse. People talk about 2 degrees as a goal, but you can also reach 4 degrees, 6 degrees, 8 degrees… If we never do anything (Actively or passively) then we will hit all of those and things will keep getting worse.

As my link up in comment #4 describes, I fundamentally don’t believe that this is an economic problem. Some people believe that everything is an economic problem, so they disagree. But really this is a question about what kind of society we want to have. Do we want to have one that will predictably destroy our way of life, or not? If the answer is not, then we fix this even if it is not economic to do so (i.e. even if the dollarized costs seemingly outweighs the dollarized benefits).

There is the question of, having decided to do it, how we do it most economically. JQ has made a number of posts about why, economically, nuclear power can’t really compete with renewables. But even if this wasn’t so, a lot of the political conflict is about risk tolerance. People who want global warming to be fixed generally have low risk tolerance, something that also predisposes them to oppose nuclear power. There is no way in which a nuclear power plant can ever be made as low risk as a solar installation.


Dan Cole 08.05.16 at 2:10 pm

Granted, the farther out you go, the greater the uncertainty and the more likely forecasting errors become. So far, however, the climate models have been predicting rising global mean temps reasonably well (though they’ve tended to underestimate sea-level rise), as you can see from Figure 1.10 in the IPCC’s AR15 (

As you say, we cannot know the “best” response because we are in a second-best world (if not third-best). That said, we know that doing nothing is the worst response. The International Energy Agency predicts that the world will be heavily reliant on fossil fuels for the next 20-30 years, and that “renewable” sources such as wind and solar, won’t make much of dent in that time period. Of course, the IEA predictions could be wrong. But assuming they are more or less correct, they create the need to build technological bridges from now to a low-carbon future. Nuclear pretty much has to be one of those bridges, especially given the problems that have been plaguing carbon capture and storage. One bright spot is the switch from coal to natural gas. Despite the fact that methane is a more powerful GHG than carbon dioxide, market-based reasons to capture it exist, which should make regulatory requirements on methane emissions easier to implement.


Glen Tomkins 08.05.16 at 2:36 pm

“Defending his fellow “sceptics”, commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.”

What business does a climate skeptic have maintaining any particular conviction on the subject, a mind that needs changing? The point is very well taken that actual convictions rarely change. But why would anyone have convictions on a technical question like climate change, as opposed to a mind completely open to the accumulation of new evidence? We should all be skeptics on all technical and scientific questions.

I don’t need a conviction that a diagnosis is correct to then prescribe a treatment. I just need the accumulation of enough evidence that the patient has a disease for which the treatment is less harmful than the disease, that treating makes sense. No sensible person thought, 50 years ago when the theory of anthropogenic climate change was proposed, that there was enough evidence that the theory was correct that it justified any measure at that time beyond further study. But now 50 years of that further study has accumulated enough such evidence that no sensible person now denies the steep price of not applying appropriate cures.

The time and place in which I grew up, the New Orleans of 55 years ago, presented people who lived there then with an actual matter of conviction. We had the open challenge to a legal and social system that was premised on the idea that black people weren’t actually people. Accepting or denying this premise was a matter of conviction. Cassander is right, I will never change my convictions on that and similar topics. If I do change my mind on such a question, it won’t be me anymore, it will be an effect of the Alzheimer’s taking my mind. There can be no accumulation of evidence that will budge me. I am not an equal rights skeptic.

And the 55 years of evidence that has accumulated since then is that people who adhered to the opposite set of convictions have also not budged. Lately they find it inconvenient to openly deny the humanity of fellow human beings, so they tend to pose as skeptics and hide the underlying conviction, as if any of us should have to prove our common humanity to any other set of us.


cassander 08.05.16 at 2:50 pm

@Thomas Beale

>My point here is that while Nuclear power appears to be an on-paper acceptable and reasonable response to problems of pollution and climate change, but for all sorts of contingent reasons, it cannot be proved so.

You are absolutely right. The trouble is that the same is also true of any other alternative, including “do nothing”. All are wrapped in, as you say, hidden costs and externalities. That is why I support nuclear, because, of all the options, it requires the fewest changes from the base line, in both an organizational and technological sense. It has fewer unknown unknowns than any of the alternatives, and thus is likeliest to have costs closest to the estimates. Apparently, around here, such beliefs get one labeled as a dishonest shill, so welcome to the club.

It is ironic that JQ cites a disbelief in central planning as a major mind change while advocating central planning for energy. I suspect that he changed his mind only in a very narrow sense. He did not really abandon a core belief, mostly just some rhetoric, a transition from “I’m for planning” to “I’m not for planning EVERYTHING, just things I find important”. Really, all he rejected was the USSR, and that a good 40 years later than any honest person should have, not the impossibility of economic planning on a nationwide scale.


Yes, clearly of the right. Tu quoque can be a fallacy, but it can also be a accusation one throws when confronted with the fact that they’ve stepped in their own history. In this case, JQ is doing the latter, not me the former. One can tell because he cannot resist piling on insult rather than responding with argument.


Brett 08.05.16 at 2:58 pm

I can’t really see nuclear as a “bridge”, because of the regulatory and time barriers. It’ll only get much easier to build nuclear power plants in rich countries if we’re already under a crunch and frantically trying to decarbonize the economy as quick as possible, which we’re not doing yet.


faustusnotes 08.05.16 at 3:00 pm

Cassander changes his mind whenever the denialosphere produce a new graph.


Brett 08.05.16 at 3:04 pm


I don’t reject nation-wide economic planning for all of an economy, just most of it. When we’re talking about large-scale enterprises with only a small number of firms and very long periods of adjustment to economic conditions (big firms have a “lot of ruin in them”), the quicker response time of a market versus democratic socialist governance isn’t nearly as big of a deal. That’s even more so if the product itself is relatively generic and mass-produced, like with utilities or mail.


Peter Erwin 08.05.16 at 3:28 pm

Lee A. Arnold @15:
… causing a 1- or 2-year heatspike that would extinguish 99% of everything, leaving just a few of each terrestrial species. (Then it would cool-off again very quickly, due to the worldwide smoke from forest fires etc., and the land would be repopulated very quickly.) I don’t know how paleo evidence can rule out this possibility: it might happen without leaving a discernible bottleneck in the fossil records

How would a 99% extinction event not leave a huge paleontological record? The K-Pg (was: K-T) event was less devastating (only[!] about 75% of all species), and we have overwhelming evidence for that. You’re proposing something worse than even the Permian-Triassic extinction (90-96% of all species), which is the biggest one we know about.

(No, the land would not be “repopulated very quickly”, certainly not by the exact same distribution of species that existed before. Plus, you’re ignoring the mass extinction in the oceans that would take place. And in fact it wouldn’t be a 1–2 year spike — more like a decades- or centuries-long excursion, since the typical lifetime of methane in the atmosphere is 12 years, followed by additional warming from the CO2 it converts into.)


faustusnotes 08.05.16 at 3:39 pm

It’s nice to see people like Lee A Arnold changing their mind to notice that AGW might be a threat to the human economy; or indeed JQ changing his mind to note that regulatory actions are important, not just market pricing.

These have been the opinions of environmentalists since about 1990. It would be nice if now that you have changed your mind you would also acknowledge that the people who have been excluded from polite debate on this issue – the Greenpeace and Earthfirst! and Sea Shepherd types, that “reasonable” people have to sneer at – were right all along.

Once again the environmental movement wins a debate. They’ve been wrong on basically one thing – nuclear power. And in the meantime nuclear power has been proven inefficient and useless (it can’t even get off the ground in China) and has become one of the main strategies for delay deployed by the libertard lovers of central planning (like Cassander in this thread).

Some recognition of the accuracy and authoritativeness of “fringe” environmentalists on this issue – which is now fundamental to the survival of industrial civilization – would be nice in these mea culpa threads.


RNB 08.05.16 at 3:46 pm

Perhaps the most important example of an American environmentalist who went from insider and reformist to radical in light of the evidence


Ogden Wernstrom 08.05.16 at 3:56 pm

@10 Brett 08.05.16 at 4:47 am:

I believed in global warming, stopped believing in it for a while, then started believing in it again.

So, there was a pause.

@27 cassander 08.05.16 at 2:50 pm, calls Quiggin something-other-than-honest:

… all [JQ] rejected was the USSR, and that a good 40 years later than any honest person should have…

…and, in the next paragraph:

JQ…cannot resist piling on insult rather than responding with argument.


Joshua W. Burton 08.05.16 at 4:08 pm

I won’t mention proton decay and minimal supersymmetry, because “in quinque sigma veritas est” — it’s remarkably easy to change your mind when the evidence is starkly numerical and statistically overwhelming, leaving you nowhere to hide. Two “soft” beliefs that I have personally changed by approximately 180 degrees in the last decade solely because of empirical evidence:

(1) Pork-barrel spending. It turns out that denying the US party leadership the disciplinary tool of dangling corrupt home-district appropriations in front of wayward members and their mad caucuses has been an epic fail of still-unfathomed cost to the Republic. How cheap, in retrospect, it would have been to leave the ox unmuzzled!

(2) Death penalty. I used to firmly oppose on grounds of fiscal responsibility (never mind the moral question): it’s much cheaper, on any reasonable accounting, to lock a murderer up for life than to provide the constitutionally-mandated rituals of review that attend US executions. And then, through the slow working of those very rituals, my home state of Illinois turned up seventeen capital-I innocent prisoners who would assuredly have rotted unjustly in prison for the rest of their natural lives if they had been sentenced to life without parole and had therefore not received that review. So now, especially because (at least here in the blue states) every single death-row inmate voluntarily refused a live-saving plea bargain in order to have that day in court, I favor imposing (though never carrying out) the ultimate sentence, as the best means our imperfect system offers of directing limited resources towards uncovering the most shameful of all institutional injustices.


bruce wilder 08.05.16 at 4:08 pm

Peter Erwin:

I understand what he’s imagining. He’s not talking an extinction event; he’s speculating about population crashes: events in which the population of a species suffers a huge loss due to an event at the extreme edge of natural variation in weather. Something like what happens in a severe drought or a giant forest fire, but bigger or affecting multiple much larger regions simultaneously.

The natural history of the Ice Age of the last 2.5 or 3 million years has many episodes of rapid climate switching which we have never experienced the like of in recorded history. If the Little Ice Age, which was much less severe a fluctuation in climate than, say, the Younger Dryas, disrupted farming, it is difficult to believe that episodes like the Younger Dryas did not stress many species populations.

We can quibble over details, but I think Lee is basically right to focus on trying to imagine the effects of severe fluctuations. It is not the effects of a steady rise in temperatures that we ought to fear, it is the setting off of extremely disruptive fluctuations in weather and climate. Not gradually building to a heat wave that never ends at the conclusion of a century, but the sudden onset of a heat wave or a cold snap, an order of magnitude beyond the norm of a stable climate.


Marc 08.05.16 at 4:20 pm

@32: The environmental movement has successes and failures like any other. I think that radical activists in general harm the causes that they’re promoting, and that they are far less likely to change their minds in the face of evidence than less fanatical people.

The importance of climate change as an issue was not the sole province of Greenpeace, who if anything focused much more on the threat of nuclear power. People like Mann and the scientists involved in the IPCC did the grunt work of quantifying the challenge of climate change in my view, and if anyone deserves credit it’s them.


Ralph H. 08.05.16 at 4:36 pm

Yeah, about this war thing: I joined the US Air Force & went to Vietnam believing in the “Cold War consensus,” i.e., it was a “zero sum” confrontation, & that if we lost in Vietnam it would be a win for communism. This was in 1971-72, and although the NVA came storming south after US troops (ground force units) had been withdrawn, the ARVN managed to hold on while US airpower inflicted massive casualties on the NVA and selective, substantial damage on North Vietnam, & their leadership realized that they had to get the US out of the war at any cost (I credit historian Ronald Spector for helping me reach this conclusion). But I came to realize, over time, that we would lose in the end, because 1) unlike Korea, Vietnam had an open flank in Laos, through which ran the Ho Chi Minh Trail, interdiction of which (a campaign in which I participated) would hamper but not block the flow of supplies and reinforcements to the South; and, 2) I believe that while President Nixon’s massive use of American airpower ensured the failure of Hanoi’s “Easter Offensive” and brought about a peace settlement, Hanoi was certain to renew their conquest of the South after Nixon had left office (which he did, sooner than expected) and the prospect of US reengagement with airpower dropped to zero — aided by drastic reduction of military aid to South Vietnam and the War Powers Act, of course.

That this unhappy outcome did not happen in Korea is mainly a function of geography — the absence of open flanks thanks to large bodies of water on both sides of the peninsula, which we controlled. Our kind of war could “work” there but could not work in Vietnam. And, surprisingly (to me), “global communism” gained little or nothing from Hanoi’s 1975 victory. Almost immediately China and Vietnam were at each other’s throats, and while Soviet bombers flew out of Cam Ranh Bay for several years, they altered the military balance on the Pacific Rim not a whit. So, everything I believed to be true before the war turned out to be false. I lost some friends and risked my own life for nothing.

What this means is that we as a nation need to take a really hard look at things and consider alternate scenarios for end-games before we start beating the war drums. The Iraq War, for example, had no informed rationale and over the course of a decade cost way too many lives and made things a lot worse in that part of the world. So yeah, war is very seldom the answer. Now, about global warming and climate change . . . .


cassander 08.05.16 at 4:51 pm


>the quicker response time of a market versus democratic socialist governance isn’t nearly as big of a deal. That’s even more so if the product itself is relatively generic and mass-produced, like with utilities or mail.

I don’t at all deny that as companies get larger, they become much more like central planners than market actors. That said, I’d still argue that there’s a qualitative difference between the two.

Take, for example, telecom. One would think that a national phone network is the sort of thing a central planning would actually be pretty good at. The physical network is a textbook natural monopoly, setting it up requires a lot of capital, the technology behind it, while not unsophisticated, is mature, the problem seems well suited to rationalized planning, and so on. Despite this, 20 years ago, most developing countries had some sort of ministry of communications with some sort of national phone monopoly that was terrible.

Two things then happened. First, cell phones began to rapidly surpass the centrally planned networks in both cost and penetration. Second, there was a very large wave of telecom privatization, the result of which was dramatic improvements in land line access.

Now, you can criticize these privatizations and the fortunes that were often made by them all you want, but a few facts remain. First, those rational central planners failed for decades to build cheap, reliable, extensive phone networks. Now, you can claim that we’re talking about poor developing countries without the capital for new networks, but those same factors existed for the cell phone companies. You could also claim that cell phones were a revolutionary new technology that made lower demands for capital/skilled labor/what have you, but that brings us to the second fact, that, as far as I know, nowhere was the cell phone revolution the product of central planning by the established planner. In several cases, the planners fought cell phones, offering up much the same arguments that the USPS gave against FedEx. Third, despite the often often corrupt and monopolistic nature of the privatizations, the now private entities engaged in much more reform and improvement than they did as government entities, despite the limits imposed on them by their countries’ environments.

Now, there are times when central planning is essential, but they are almost all circumstances where time is of the essence. De-centralized solutions will almost always outperform centralized solutions given time, but if you need to do something big immediately, like win a war, centralization can win by doing a lot of stuff inefficiently but quickly. Climate change might or might not be such a problem. If it’s not, I want to rely on decentralized market friendly methods like pricing carbon. Maybe that leads to a solar grid, or maybe not, I don’t know, but
the only reason to put your thumb on the scale is if you have a goal besides finding the most efficient non-carbon way to generate energy. If I came to the conclusion that climate change is a problem in need of an immediate solution, then the one I look for is not the most efficient, but the simplest, i.e. the one with the least technological risk and which works best with existing infrastructure. That is mass production of nuclear reactors.

In neither case does betting the farm on renewables make sense. If you believe there’s time and that solar et. al. are truly superior to existing options, then they’ll get there on their own with a carbon tax without needed to presuppose them as the solution. If you think things are too urgent to wait on markets, then you should be extremely hesitant to take the technical risk on solar, because while solar might become more efficient, it also might not work at all, or take longer than you think it will. No one doubts that it could work, even if other options might be more efficient.

@Ogden Wernstrom

JQ reaps what he sows, but I’ll note you managed to skip right past my argument. JQ gave no argument to skip by, just insult and reliance on a friendly commentariat.


Haftime 08.05.16 at 5:33 pm

JQ – might not be the place for this, but what do you make of energy density arguments for nuclear?
This is obviously irrelevant for countries like the USA, Canada, NZ or Australia, but for densely populated countries like the UK/Germany/India (China?), finding the space for a country sized power plant is challenging. There is little prospect of the energy density improving, so it seems like a reasonably hard physical limit to me.


Matt 08.05.16 at 5:45 pm

The ur-change that catalyzed many other changes was discovering when I was 20 that I had been extensively and intensively deceived by my school teachers and their collaborators about the age of the Earth and the origin of species. I grew up in a conservative Christian family and I was sent to schools where they taught Discovery Institute-brand Young Earth Creationism until I attended a non-religious SLAC for my undergraduate education.

It wasn’t the secular school that turned me. It was reading a book about nuclear chemistry published circa 1960 that explained isochron radioisotope dating clearly and in depth. That’s what got through to me: the Earth really was ancient. The Discovery Institute has invented epicycles to discredit isochron dating, like everything else that undermines their narrative, but that was finally where I had my breakthrough because I knew a fair bit more about mainstream chemistry than about mainstream cosmology or biology. Everything I was reading about isochron dating was consistent with my knowledge of the rest of chemistry, and the creationist excuses weren’t. It was time for a comprehensive reassessment of all my certain knowledge about God, the universe, and everything. If everyone I had trusted growing up was deceiving me or too careless to prevent others from deceiving me about this key issue, I was going to have to reassess everything I could think of that I had previously just absorbed from my elders.

That big change was around March 2001. Then the terrorist attacks of September that year appeared to make large numbers of my fellow Americans lose their minds, I joined the ACLU in fear of what sort of country this was becoming, and I added “American exceptionalism and goodness” to the big pile of things to be reassessed critically.


stevenjohnson 08.05.16 at 5:50 pm

The world economy is entirely undamaged by the nightmare of central planning, increasingly even in subdivisions. Competition between capitals is systemic, even to the point of multiple currencies and commodity equivalents. The vast majority of capital investments are made in pursuit of profit. No doubt it was the evidence from the economic history of the world in the last few centuries that convinced John Quiggin he was wrong, wrong, wrong about being soft on Communism, and the Great Crusade has paid off handsomely. But then I guess this is very much like Rich Puchalsky looking at world anarchy and thinking, great stuff!

People modify their views on all sorts of things because of evidence (even—or especially?—evidence that is is more trendy than substantive.) Reversals on little issues you haven’t much thought about because of evidence is also rather common. It is rather more unusual I think to find consistency than failure to accept evidence. Judging from personal experience, the vagaries of memory probably exaggerate the amount of consistency, thus minimizing the humiliating obeisance to mere facts.

As to reversing yourself on major tenets long held… I seriously doubt the OP could make a prima facie case that the centrally planned economies failed to meet human needs because they were centrally planned, or that the capitalist world met human needs better because they weren’t. So I very much doubt the evidence changed anybody’s mind, but it was a matter of changing standards about what counted as evidence, or what meet the standard of probative. I suspect that’s very much the case for most such reversals.


Bruce B. 08.05.16 at 6:09 pm

It seems like one of the really basic divides is between “my desire to know the truth and act in accord within it will routinely call upon me to change what I’ve been advocating and doing, because the universe is surprising and I am but a person, with weaknesses in understanding and willpower I will only ever partially overcome” and the alternative view, that once you’ve nailed down something you should almost never, ever have to revise your stance. Cassander constantly demonstrates the second – they’re not in the market, in any general way, for things that might upend their current positions. John Q. models the first for us here.

Stevenjohnson: “So I very much doubt the evidence changed anybody’s mind, but it was a matter of changing standards about what counted as evidence, or what meet the standard of probative. I suspect that’s very much the case for most such reversals.” This is a huge, huge part of it, for sure.


cassander 08.05.16 at 6:26 pm

@Bruce B. 08.05.16 at 6:09 pm

>Cassander constantly demonstrates the second – they’re not in the market, in any general way, for things that might upend their current positions. John Q. models the first for us here.

I have repeatedly explained my LACK of certainty around the issues we’re discussing. I have repeatedly explained that my solutions are designed to deal with the fact that “the universe is surprising.” Few of those weighing in against me have shown even a hint of uncertainty or humility. John Q’s attitude, in particular, is neither. It expresses perfect certainty, just as it did in 2004, with zero adjustment made for having been wrong before, and especially zero acknowledgement of the method of the change, rapidly changing technological/market conditions. I happen to think he is wrong about solar power, but if he is right and I am not, the solutions I propose make room to learn of the error and adapt. His do not.

In future, please actually read what write before commenting on it, because you have the shoe entirely on the wrong foot.


Bruce B. 08.05.16 at 6:28 pm

I have been reading what you’ve written here, ever since showing up. I am not responsible for the gap between my assessment and your own.


Marc 08.05.16 at 6:32 pm

@39: If you find that injecting carbon into the atmosphere has costs, you want to make their usage reflect those costs. There is nothing intrinsically “liberal” about this. You also want to make the costs of nuclear power properly accounted for. This includes long term waste storage and dealing with rare, but potentially devastating, failures. To be honest, it sounds very much to me as if pissing liberals off is more important to you than the actual problems at hand; otherwise the single minded focus on nuclear doesn’t make sense.

Subsidies to investigate non-CO2 emitting energy solutions fall into the category of things like searching for disease cures, e.g. they’re squarely in the regime of proper uses for publicly funded research. Calling the pricing of external costs and funding of research into alternatives as a power grab by the left seems pretty bizarre, to be honest.


AH 08.05.16 at 6:54 pm

The biggest change in my beliefs due to data is a meta one that has to do with the replicability crisis and the reliability of applied statistics in general.

When reading about a study in the press, my prior has moved to believing that the analysis is probably flawed or not powerful enough to justify the claims made.


Brett Dunbar 08.05.16 at 7:04 pm

It does seem that the statistical models used to calculate the dangers of a nuclear accident seriously overstated the consequences. The standard model was a linear no threshold model based on the evidence from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. So we had two data points close together based on rather large exposures and an assumed zero risk at zero exposure. This is not an extrapolation on which much confidence can be placed. Post accident epidemiology for Chernobyl indicates that any additional risk is too small to show up as an excess in mortality or morbidity over random variations in the rates. There is an increased diagnosis of cancer but as that is the same both inside and outside the plume that is presumably simply improvements in diagnosis rather than a consequence of the accident.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.16 at 7:07 pm

Peter Erwin #31: “How would a 99% extinction event not leave a huge paleontological record?”

Not talking about the extinction of species, but the death of most of the individuals in each. Bruce Wilder answered this, and I should have been clearer:

It might be possible to have a brief climate event which destroys most of the individuals in each species, but the species still survive as a few individuals of each, who find refuge in small areas (so-called “cryptic refugia”) until the brief climate event is over. (This idea surfaced before, in discussions of the effects of “nuclear winter”.)

We now know that natural, brief climate extremes have happened before (e.g. the Dansgaard-Oeschger events).

Did these events greatly effect plants and animals on land? Don’t know, and it may be impossible to find evidence for, or against, this hypothesis: The individuals could emerge after the climate event, and repopulate the land fast enough, to not show the population bottlenecks in the fossil record. It appears from the literature that genetic evidence may not be conclusive, either.

If it happened now, it would destroy enough of agriculture to destroy civilization.

Anyway the thing to do is to continue monitoring permafrost methane release.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.16 at 7:22 pm

Faustusnotes #32: “It would be nice if now that you have changed your mind you would also acknowledge that the people who have been excluded from polite debate on this issue – the Greenpeace and Earthfirst! and Sea Shepherd types, that “reasonable” people have to sneer at – were right all along.”

Oh really! I have never sneered at any of them, probably have been following all of them longer than you, and I possess a copy of EVERY ISSUE of the Earth First! Journal going back almost to the first issue, as an invaluable and irreplaceable historical source of environment land-use issues that includes the detailed machinations of all the corporate crooks and clowns and how they destroyed wild acreage in many various places in the world. Much of it is first-hand reportage and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the published records.

That said, most of the members of these groups STILL believe that technological innovation and economic growth of ANY kind must cause biospheric damage — a belief which (as I wrote in comment #1) I no longer share, and which I am quite sure is wrong.


mpowell 08.05.16 at 7:23 pm

The nuclear vs solar debate is kind of fascinating to me. I’ve read a lot on both sides of the argument, and all I can conclude is that this is a very hard question that really requires a great deal of knowledge of the facts as they exist, the potential for the underlying technology (and across a broad range of fields!), and some perspective on political feasibility. On a lot of issues I feel I can form a reasonable opinion by reading a range of plausibly informed opinions. Not so much here. On this debate, its really unclear to me why so many people think the answer is obvious (and that they have it). It is especially awesome that some prominent people have gone from strong advocates on one side to the other.


Ogden Wernstrom 08.05.16 at 7:37 pm

“Anyway the thing to do is to continue monitoring permafrost methane release.”
This will be performed by a fleet of 72 specially-instrumented jumbo jets, flying above the permafrost zone 24 hours a day, taking measurements.


Lee A. Arnold 08.05.16 at 7:39 pm

The idea that nuclear is necessary is getting weaker all the time. On the one hand we are heading into a less energy-intensive economic production, and on the other hand alternative energy innovation has begun to explode with all sorts of amazing possibilities. I chose “Science Daily” as my browser startup-page and it’s become obvious that the rate of innovation is accelerating. Just today, Cornell announced an “oxygen-assisted aluminum/carbon dioxide power cell that uses electrochemical reactions to both sequester the carbon dioxide and produce electricity”. It still needs a less sensitive electrolyte, but the point is that these sorts of things are now being announced every other day.


harry b 08.05.16 at 8:30 pm

When the evidence for X is overwhelming, where X is a matter of scientific enquiry (like global waring), and the evidence is readily available to and is regularly presented to a person, and that person does not believe X, it is going to be pretty rare that further evidence will convince them. But, when the evidence for X is merely very strong, and a person believes X, it is not at all rare that discomfirming evidence will shake, or change, their believe. And when, as in two of — and maybe all three of — JQs examples there is a normative dimension to the belief, people are liable to change their minds not just in response to empirical evidence, but in response to moral learning.

JQ’s arguments about war have maybe not entirely convinced me, but have certainly shifted me to a more anti-interventionist position than I had before. At the same time, I have changed my mind about the morality of two wars that I had previously thought were wrong (and put considerable energy into opposing), for a whole bunch of reasons, including reflection on JQs anti-war stance, and a very oblique comment Daniel made about 10 years ago!

Thanks, js, for crediting me with influence! I, too, have changed my mind about lots of issues to do with higher education, in particular the part of the sector I inhabit, in the course of the time I have inhabited it — partly in response to having (I think) a better understanding of how it works, partly thanks to normative arguments, and substantially thanks to students pressing me on what they think my job is and should be, and their ideas about how the institution might change. (In case that sounds like I am unduly deferential to them, I’m not — on issues about funding higher education I tend to disagree with most of those I talk to quite a bit).

In general, people do not change their minds about big things quickly. It would be bizarre if they did. You think slowly, mull things over, respond to considerations, test out ideas. I don’t think that is badly conservative, just sensible.


RNB 08.05.16 at 8:40 pm

I am really not getting this opposition to humanitarian intervention first because I do not think the Iraq War was an example of it, so its failure does not discredit the very idea of humanitarian intervention and R2P and second because the successful opposition to humanitarian intervention has not resulted in a good situation in Syria, which is one of the greatest human rights catastrophes since World War 2.
I get still being opposed to humanitarian intervention. And I would not push for one. But if anything I would think people’s principled reasons for opposing them would be shaken by the unfolding catastrophe in Syria.


Phil 08.05.16 at 9:31 pm

Communism. I read Orwell at a formative age (who doesn’t?) and for years identified myself proudly as a democratic socialist and took sides against Trots of any kind. (I hated actual Communists too, obviously, but since they were generally well to the Right of my position our paths didn’t often cross.) As I met and worked with people who actually were Trots – and listened to the bellowing of other proud defenders of post-Orwellian democratic leftism – it gradually became clear to me that I’d bought a bill of goods. I think the penny finally dropped in 1991, when I read a review of Frances Stonor Saunders’ Who Paid the Piper? by Francis Mulhern:

[The CIA’s] goal was to establish an America-friendly, anti-Soviet hegemony over Europe’s intelligentsias, and to do so by supporting the cultural projects of ‘non-communist lefts’ (‘NCLs’). Reactionaries were of little interest; professional ex-Stalinists such as Arthur Koestler were a nuisance. T.S. Eliot was all very well, but honest George Orwell was a precious resource. [The British Foreign Office’s Information Research Department] financed campaigns against the New Statesman, thought to be insufficiently hostile to the USSR, but supported Socialist Commentary, the house organ of Labour’s Atlanticist right, as well as Tribune: one anti-Stalinist was as serviceable as another. There is a difficult moral here, worth pausing over even – or especially – in our post-Wall world.

Also, not unrelatedly, anti-imperialism. The way the West stood aside and let Bosnia be butchered was disgraceful, I thought at the time, a disgrace matched only by the way parts of the Left leapt to the defence of what they naively imagined was still ‘socialist Yugoslavia’. A few years later I welcomed NATO’s intervention against Serbia over Kosovo, and hoped once again that some of my fellow leftists could be brought to agree with me. At least, I welcomed it until I realised that I disagreed with the tactics being used, the force using them and the stated war aims; in effect I supported an intervention against Serbia, but not the one that was actually happening.

The two shifts are connected; in both cases I was especially reluctant to go over to the ‘Left’ camp because I thought I’d be surrounded by know-nothing headbangers intent on blaming everything on their chosen enemy. In both cases I’ve since realised that there are just as many measured and thoughtful interventions being made on this side as there were on the side I was on – which is to say, very few, but enough – and there are certainly just as many know-nothing headbangers on that side as there are on this.


awy 08.05.16 at 9:59 pm

the western left is subject to manipulation by both sides. it’s not that surprising that the CIA likes the moderates while the kremlin really hated the moderates and would try to cultivate actual communists


bruce wilder 08.05.16 at 10:51 pm

OW @ 52: This will be performed by a fleet of 72 specially-instrumented jumbo jets, flying above the permafrost zone 24 hours a day, taking measurements.

I laughed when I read this and then I had second thoughts.


Faustusnotes 08.05.16 at 11:33 pm

I love that Cassander raises telecom as an example of the market getting things right. Good to see he’s doing it on the Internet, another great example of market forces inventing a public good and rolling out the infrastructure to ensure we all have access to it without inequality or cost or quality issues. Well done Cassander!


nnyhav 08.05.16 at 11:42 pm

My skepticism on the capacity of climate modelling to attribute global warming in proper proportion to man-made causes (as expressed in comments here) evaporated within a couple of years when first out-of-model confirmation came in the form of sea-surface temperatures consistent with AGW. My skepticism about the Kyoto protocol as being the proper way to address it has only been reduced somewhat (stuff like coniferous carbon sequestration get in the way). OTOH my skepticism regarding economic (esp financial) models has gone to 11.


engels 08.06.16 at 12:08 am

Probably the main thing I’ve changed my mind about (not entirely, but to a degree) after long exposure to this website is the utility of rational argument as an instrument for discovering the truth or achieving positive political change.


js. 08.06.16 at 12:19 am

At least, I welcomed it until I realised that I disagreed with the tactics being used, the force using them and the stated war aims; in effect I supported an intervention against Serbia, but not the one that was actually happening.

Yeah, but this is the case against humanitarian intervention in general, no? The ideal case humanitarian intervention sounds great; actually existing humanitarian interventions are uniformly indefensible.


engels 08.06.16 at 12:36 am

actually existing humanitarian interventions are uniformly indefensible

The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia can be defended imho.


js. 08.06.16 at 12:38 am

Can I put in a word for *not* changing your mind here? It’s all very well—and entirely right—to say that one should change one’s mind in the face of evidence and argument. At the same time, it’s not a bad thing if one’s core convictions are resistant to this sort of change. In other words, it’s good to have core convictions—ideally, ones that are at least somewhat thought out (i.e. not simply received).

So OK, here’s an example of the kind of thing I mean. I don’t think there’s any “evidence” you could present that would lead me to change my mind that a non-exploitative mode of social production is possible and that it can be stable and successful over time. My point is tho that the same kind of thing is true of core convictions that I find morally abhorrent. (I mean something like: someone who thinks the social position of women is fundamentally different from that of men isn’t going to be convinced by the example of women successful in traditionally male social functions. And—somewhat rightly.) What you need in these kinds of cases is something like what Harry above calls “moral education”. At which point I do think you’re rather far away from the kind of thing JQ had in mind in the OP. I think.

I think this all generalizes? I mean to concerns relevant to the OP.


js. 08.06.16 at 12:44 am

@engels — Sure. But was that really a humanitarian intervention or was it more like India in ’71 re Bangladesh? Which also worked out in humanitarian terms.


Peter Dorman 08.06.16 at 3:30 am

This is sort of ironic: the biggest change in my thinking during the past decade was from believing that forestalling catastrophic climate change would be relatively cheap (with lots of win-wins along the way) to my current view that it’s going to be a very difficult transition — in other words, largely the reverse of the reversal pointed to in the OP. JQ and I tilted about this on CT a while back, and there’s no need to rehash now. (My book next year will make a somewhat more extended case.)

This change of heart proved to be very anti-tribal. I used to be a respected member of Team Green, at least in my neighborhood, invited to give talks etc. Now I’m largely on the outside. Saying that eliminating fossil fuels within a generation is going to be a tough job is seen as giving aid and comfort to the other side.


Bruce B. 08.06.16 at 3:31 am

Lee A. Arnold: It turns out to be hard to wipe out many members of a species and not get extinction. Populations are fragile. Individual organisms feel shock, which messes up behavior. Species that rely on the damaged ones, as prey or as predator or as partner in commensural relationships, get messed up – they go through booms and busts of their own, which destabilize the rest of the community. Thin a population too far and the local community dies off; do that to a lot of communities, and the species collapses. Depending on the species involved, their thinning may change soil, water, and air conditions in the vicinity, which then affect even species that don’t interact with them directly.

I went to college in the Puget Sound area in the mid’80s, and two of my friends were geology majors. Their advisor was active in the study of resettlement around Mount St. Helens. It turns out that this goes faster than anyone had known if you’ve got healthy communities all around the damaged area. The bigger the damaged area and the more barriers in the way of contact with the surrounding world, the longer and worse resettlement goes, and the curves are nasty, they find when studying other resettlements.


Neil 08.06.16 at 5:06 am

“Head Start has been extensively studied and shown to be a failure”.

That misrepresents the conclusions of the OPRE assessment of the program. It found that it produced modest benefits, and that the benefits could be expected to be larger if the program was better targeted.


Joseph Brenner 08.06.16 at 5:14 am

One thing relevent that I’ve changed my mind about is carbon
sequestration. I initially assumed that it was just coal
industry nonsense, but the policy recommendations of the last
IPCC report list it of one of three technologies that we shouild
be working on now, along with renewables and nuclear power.

It would be obviously hypocritical for me to criticize the right
for dismissing the IPCC out-of-hand and then to do the same thing
myself, so I reluctantly need to reconsider what I believed about
the potential for CCS.

Notably, I have not noticed any tendency for the left to
reconsider it’s beliefs about nuclear energy because the IPCC
takes it seriously.


James Wimberley 08.06.16 at 8:25 am

On central planning. The academic support for this has collapsed around the time that we got solid proofs from Stiglitz and Greenblatt that all actual markets, under the prevailing and inevitable asymmetries of information, are necessarily inefficient. IIRC their corollary is that in principle any market can be improved by a tailored technocratic state intervention, a nudge. Of course, in practice this does not work either: the technocrat is just another semi-informed schlub with a job to protect, so perfect nudging is impossible too. So realists have to concentrate on cases where the market gets things badly wrong (fossil fuels, health care, finance) and ignore those where the market seems to be doing OK . Pizza fits the latter at first sight, but then you think of high-fructose corn syrup.


Peter Erwin 08.06.16 at 10:05 am

Lee A. Arnold @ 51:
It might be possible to have a brief climate event which destroys most of the individuals in each species, but the species still survive as a few individuals of each…

The problem is that I don’t think you can expect that an event capable of killing “99%” of all animals (and how many plants?) will not produce major extinctions. Because in reality climate events don’t carefully ensure that each and every species is treated equally: the effects will be stronger in some places and weaker in others, and different species will be vulnerable to different degrees.

And as Bruce B. @ 69 pointed out, even in the fantasy case of uniform die-offs, species will still go extinct due to ecosystem crashes, differing responses to the lack of food, the temporary absence of some critical resource produced by another species, populations of rare animals dropping below genetic-bottleneck thresholds (or thresholds for being able to mate), etc.

(Not that I’m disagreeing with you about the idea that a massive methane release would be catastrophic for human agriculture.)


Lee A. Arnold 08.06.16 at 1:02 pm

Bruce B #69, Peter Erwin #73,

I agree with parts of what both of you say, but I am less sure about all of it.

The theory of “cryptic refugia” and “microrefugia” is just that, a theory, proposed to explain patterns of terrestrial colonization after the last glaciation.

If there are only a few such refuges, and/or the climate event is extended in time, then the likelihood of causing global extinctions is surely increased. As you both note, this would happen by add-on effects: of the animals consuming all the remaining food, by population-density effects, by adverse population dynamics, and by niche disappearances. The reduction in species by these processes, which are actuated in the “island biogeography” thesis, takes a bit of extended time to play out.

No argument there! The modern wildlife habitat fragmentation and enclosure by human settlements makes the likelihood much higher.

It is undoubted that local animal subspecies would be lost — but would this cause a global extinction of the whole species, or the genus? As I understand it, the paleo evidence isn’t always clear enough to distinguish the hundreds or thousands of subspecies which may have been part of a species (nor all of the species that might have been in a genus).

The green plant issue is different, of course. There could be 100% cessation of photosynthesis without much reduction of the number of plant species that survive, because seeds and pods can last many years in adverse conditions, and regerminate when conditions are better.

So I am not entirely convinced. But you made me realize that I haven’t examined the OTHER end of my argument: my question was about a very short, sharp event, after which the landscape quickly returns to normal. I had been reasoning that the event could stop. It occurs to me now that this idea of “short and sharp” is completely unrealistic.

The likely effects of a major methane release may be sharp, but it won’t be short!

Methane heating will release even more methane (and more CO2 from thawed permafrost decomp). Methane has a short “atmospheric half-life”, 7 years. But it is 100 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

This makes it highly likely that it would heat the earth, or at least the northern hemisphere, enough to continuously release new methane, and additional carbon dioxide, with occasional episodes wherein forest fires blanket the globe in smoke, and release sulphurous acid rain.

So: after food riots, mayhem in the streets and the destruction of civilization, there might then be a mass species extinction over the next 1000 years, similar to the fascinating scenario of the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum” but with more initial terrestrial animal extinction due to ecological dynamics impairment by anthropogenic habitat fragmentation.


Brett Dunbar 08.06.16 at 6:32 pm

High fructose corn syrup is basically a US thing, due to large protectionist intervention on behalf of US maize farmers. In the EU the favoured group are sugar beet farmers. Both the EU and the USA seem happy to spend large amounts keeping third world sugar farmers in poverty. It isn’t a market failure, it’s a failure to let the market operate.

High fructose corn syrup is very slightly sweeter per calorie than sucrose. Sucrose is a disaccharide formed from one fructose and one glucose, while HFCS is a mix of the 56% fructose and 44% glucose. Fructose is very sweet while glucose has very low sweetness. The high fructose is in comparison with raw corn syrup rather than an absolute measure.


John Quiggin 08.07.16 at 3:28 am

@71 The IPCC process is excellent in getting an accurate summary of the state of research, but the cost is that it is not up to date with the latest information on a lot of key issues.

The most recent IPCC report was largely drafted in 2012, based on published work at the time. The problem is compounded by the fact that official agencies like IEA and EIA, which provide a lot of the input to processes themselves, have their own quite long lags. So, judgements about the relative merits of different energy sources are based on the situation around 2010, or even earlier, when nuclear and CCS looked more promising than they do now. I was still positive about both in 2008, and agnostic until about 2012


Joseph Brenner 08.07.16 at 4:36 am

John Quiggin @ 76:

Well, myself I have my doubts things have really changed that much, but let’s put that thought on hold for now, and stick with the “social epistemology” angle. How would you feel about someone else playing the same card that you are? E.g. a fanaticial anti-GMO type might claim that the scientific process is *too slow* and by the time they know for sure about the horrible damage that GMO foods are doing to us all it will be too late.

Similarly, a global warming denialist might claim that the reason they favor the papers published on their conspiranoia site to the IPCC report is that the conspiranoia site is fresh and up-to-date, and the IPCC is behind-the-times.

For what’s it’S worth, the trend at the IPCC has been going the other way… they used to suggest that renewables-alone could do the job, but in the last report nuclear power was more prominent.

Carbon sequestration has had some encouraging news recently:


John Quiggin 08.07.16 at 5:53 am

For what’s it’s worth, the trend at the IPCC has been going the other way… they used to suggest that renewables-alone could do the job, but in the last report nuclear power was more prominent.

Not according to my reading of Wikipedia Wikipedia. I don’t have time for a line-by-line comparison, but feel free to provide one if you think the summary there is inaccurate.

Of course, if this idea (or for that matter, a low-cost nuclear power technology works), I will change my mind again. That’s what apocryphal-Keynes did, after all.

The CCS report you cite is an encouraging piece of news regarding a pilot project (25o tonnes) for a promising potential innovation, but the article as a whole confirms the generally negative assessment of most people who have been keeping up.


reason 08.07.16 at 1:22 pm

Cassander is right (in the wrong way as usual). Making up your mind in the first place is the problem.


Ogden Wernstrom 08.07.16 at 1:40 pm

I had missed the Head Start thread. I volunteered for Head Start in the late ’60s / early ’70s, and the anecdata I collected seemed positive.

I thought the privatization that began in the ’90s was supposed to lead to improvement. How could it fail?


Walt 08.07.16 at 3:26 pm

Rich: I remember that. It was about Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun.

I think what’s more common is that people change their minds after the fact. You can can’t really internalize an argument while in the middle of it. Saul on the road to Damascus is not the usual way people change their minds. Instead, they think about it and change their minds over a couple of weeks, without consciously realizing it.


bruce wilder 08.08.16 at 5:53 am

It seems to me that this Second Thoughts thread has been skirting the problem of revising a World View.

A World View is, in important respects, pre-epistemic. It consists of a rough mix of habitual heuristics, comfortable intuitions, folk-wisdom, moral primitives with personal identity, experience and values. For an individual, a world view provides a filter on the incoming torrent of noise and the existential terror of being in a world of immeasurable uncertainty. But, world views are rarely idiosyncratic; as social animals, we need to share world views with our companions, because we need to share expectations and values in order to coordinate our behavior. That’s not to say we have to have identical expectations and values; on the contrary, cooperation, it seems to me, actually requires that we have different expectations and values, but somehow we make the conflicts of world views commensurable and negotiable.

An individual’s world view is necessarily anchored to that person’s point-of-view and limited by the person’s location and horizons. The society has to tolerate and make use of a variety of world views — this would be a standard modern liberal view: tolerance can make diversity a source of social strength and cultural innovation is a survival-enhancing adaptiveness.

The challenge of climate change to our shared world views won’t be met by finding the one right world view, but rather by finding some method or means of reconciling world views as commensurable and negotiable on the points critical to cooperating.

On this, I see some little progress, but mostly the world views present themselves as antagonistic long before they even begin to digest actual fact.

James Wimberley @ 72

I presume you refer to Greenwald & Stiglitz, but I’m not seeing the relevance to legitimacy of central planning, honestly.


Joseph Brenner 08.08.16 at 9:43 pm

John Quiggin @ 78:

‘Tis true that there’s a lot of material in the IPCC reports, and myself I’ve read some it, but certainly not all of it.

I was thinking of this summary published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “Timeline: The IPCC’s shifting position on nuclear energy”:

“The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report tamps down enthusiasm about renewable energy. The report candidly discusses the difficulties of spurring a renewable energy transition and integrating renewable energy. Nuclear is once again grouped with renewable energy as the key elements of a low-carbon energy system, along with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS). ‘No single mitigation option in the energy supply sector will be sufficient,’ the report warns. ‘Achieving deep cuts [in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions] will require more intensive use of low-GHG technologies such as renewable energy, nuclear energy, and CCS.'”

From reading the IPCC report itself, I gather that one of the reasons they have some interest in CCS is that if you can get it working then burning biomass goes from a carbon-neutral technology to carbon-absorbing.

Further, if you’re interested in speculation about developing an amelioration technology to absorb CO2 out of the the atmosphere, a lot of the ideas in that direction would work even better where the CO2 concentration is highest, i.e. in the smokestacks.

But I wouldn’t say I have high hopes for CCS, I’ve just been convinced that it’s research that deserves follow-up… originally it struck me as green-washing for coal.


reason 08.09.16 at 9:59 am

Bruce Wilder @82
My comment wasn’t just a throw away line. Part of a world view is a view “of how we decide things” and “how do we revise heuristics”. Having a static world view in the first place is part of the problem.


alkali 08.09.16 at 7:20 pm

Subjects on which I have changed my mind:

1) I was opposed to the first Gulf War when that happened, although I was not very confident in that opposition. I subsequently came to believe that that war might have been justified on just war/Westphalian-type grounds. Since the Iraq War — which I opposed at the time and ever since — I have shifted back toward believing that the first Gulf War was a mistake. (My profession of uncertainty on that subject could seem cavalier but I was quite young at the time and the Bush administration was definitely not asking my advice on the matter.)

2) When I was in college my public university had proposed a code of conduct that would encompass off-campus behavior and I opposed that. I now think that was wrong although I still have reservations about the scope of that code (which has since been put in place). I now believe that there are at least some kinds of off-campus conduct (e.g., a sexual assault by one student against another student) that can have substantial effects on a student’s ability to pursue education on campus.

3) I voted for Nader in 1996 in a solidly blue state because I was mad at the Clinton administration about welfare reform, DOMA, and probably some other things. I was right to be mad but voting for Nader was a mistake.

4) I used to think that gender dysphoria was a psychiatric disorder and now I don’t think that is a useful classification.

5) I used to be a card-carrying member of the literary theory brigades and my appetite for all that has waned considerably.


Joseph Brenner 08.10.16 at 7:00 am

bruce wilder @ 82:

“It seems to me that this Second Thoughts thread has been skirting the problem of revising a World View.”

Well yeah, that’s at the heart of the question at hand. There’s been a lot of work done in recent years about things like “motivated reasoning”, but the main result on our intellectual discourse is we now have more insults we can sling at each other. It’s always easier to spot the derp when the Dunning-Kruger is on the other foot.

“A World View is, in important respects, pre-epistemic. It consists of a rough mix of habitual heuristics, comfortable intuitions, folk-wisdom, moral primitives with personal identity, experience and values.”

Are you defining a “World View” as that portion of our understanding that is beyond reach of reason, and immune to evidence? You either have a very pessimistic view, or you’re using an idiosyncratic definition of what amounts to a technical term you’ve just introduced (admittedly we don’t have a very good vocabulary for talking about these things…).

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