From derp to denial

by John Quiggin on September 23, 2014

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve seen four major reports (details over the fold) from very different sources, all making the same point: decarbonizing the world economy will involve economic costs that are
(a) small; and
(b) far outweighed by the benefits
And, the empirical evidence so far is strong. The EU and US have both reduced CO2 emissions significantly, at negligible or even negative economic cost. The measures announced by Obama, including vehicle emissions standards and restrictions on coal-fired power stations appear set to achieve further substantial reductions, again while yielding net economic benefits.

Against the expectations of doubters, wind and solar PV are steadily increasing their share of electricity generation, to the point where they constitute the majority of new installations in many countries. Again, the costs have been trivially small: in Australia’s case, made up almost entirely of the reduction in asset value imposed on existing generators.

There is as far as I am aware, no credible analysis to support the opposite claim (call it the economic armageddon hypothesis) that decarbonization will involve economic costs sufficient to greatly reduce living standards, or, for poor countries, prevent catchup to the developed world. (Again, more detailed argument over the fold.

Nevertheless, past experience suggests that lots of people are sufficiently wedded to the economic armageddon hypothesis that neither this, nor any other evidence will change their minds. I have previously analyzed this unwillingness to respond to evidence in terms of Noah Smith’s Bayesian definition of “derp“: “the constant, repetitive reiteration of strong priors”.

But I no longer think this is sufficient. A central concept of Bayesian decision theory is the separation of preferences from beliefs. That is, your subjective belief about the probability that a proposition is true should be independent of whether (because you have bet on it, or for some other reason) you want it to be true. This is the opposite of what is often called “motivated reasoning” or, less politely, “wishful thinking”.

This, I think, is the central distinction between “derp” and “denial”. Both involve the rejection of factual evidence that would (to a person without strong preconceptions) be overwhelmingly strong. This must involve strong prior beliefs. Denial differs from derp in that these factual beliefs derive from preferences, and are unlikely to undergo any updating. If anything, denial may be strengthened by evidence of the proposition being denied.

This in turn suggests different possible cures. Derp may eventually, if very slowly, be overcome by an accumulation of evidence. By contrast, denial can only be addressed by changing the source of wishful thinking; for example, by convincing rightwingers to stop being rightwingers.

That brings us to the question of why, if the case is so overwhelming, the political resistance to action on climate change has been so strong, and whether it can be overcome. I have a go at this in another post on my blog, where this one was already posted. It might be worth reading the comments threads to these posts before jumping in here.

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Every single IT guy, every single manager …

by Daniel on September 23, 2014

I’m sure that this point has been made somewhere or other in the general debate on email spying and the NSA/Snowden revelations, but in my opinion not often enough or forcefully enough. People who want to dismiss the whole thing as “no big deal” are, in my view, totally underestimating the scale of the blind trust that’s required of them. In other words, even opponents of ubiquitous surveillance (like Kieran in this worked example) tend to assume that the institution which has access to your information is the institution which collected it. But that’s not necessarily the case at all.

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK demonstrated that the Police National Computer could be accessed by more or less any tabloid journalist with a phone and an account with a crooked detective agency (which served as the conduit to crooked insiders). The Manning and Snowden revelations, whatever else they’ve shown us about the world, have made it clear that mid-level employees can get access to huge amounts of top secret data as long as they’ve got the wit to smuggle it out on a thumb drive.

So the question is not so much “do you trust the CIA/NSA/MI6/etc?”. It’s “Do you trust every single sysadmin working for these organisations? Every single analyst? Every single middle manager?”. The CIA might not be interested at all in my dull mobile phone conversation metadata, but someone else might – the Leveson inquiry was told how the UK’s PNC was used by one copper to check out his daughter’s new boyfriend. In terms of our personal data, the kind of uses which the agencies want to be allowed to make, while worrying enough in themselves, are the tip of the iceberg. And all the policies which might prevent it from being accessed by blackmailers, tabloid journalists, nosey neighbours and basically anyone else, are themselves top secret and not subject to any sort of legal oversight.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, as you can see; it’s based on the fact that big and complicated systems are set up to malfunction, particularly if they are able to declare themselves above any regulation at all. And the way in which this particular system is set up to malfunction is easily predictable and potentially very damaging to innocent people. I am personally not at the stage where I trust every single person who might be hired for a low level IT job in a security agency, and I’m not sure that I trust an entirely opaque set of safeguards with no accountability either.

You have got to see this

by Maria on September 23, 2014

Feminism, social activism, eye-catching stunt made eye-catching because it’s not a stunt.

About a dozen single mothers kicked out of their hostel in east London have occupied a ‘show-flat’ in the former Olympics estate that Newham Council is trying to flog while it has 24,000 households on its waiting list.
Instead of doing what they were told and being socially cleansed 200 miles away from family, friends, children’s schools and job prospects, these incredible women subverted one of London’s great middle class pleasures, the architectural Open House (I put my hand up, I go on it every year to gawk at other people’s houses), and occupied one of hundreds of empty, new-build flats. They set the place up as a community centre and are campaigning for the council to house the actual people it’s responsible for, showing they are real, articulate people with needs and rights, not a worthless blob of social problems.

Increasingly, I just can’t justify the amount of volunteer time I spend on Internet rights. Yes, we are handing over control of every aspect of our lives to insidiously corrupt and obviously ineffective states, and that is a terrible, terrible thing. But I live in a city of dirty billionaires and hungry children. This made me cry. Something has got to give.

@FocusE15 #occupiedE15