The little matter of scientific consensus…

I am a trained scientist. My college degree is in Geology. One of the things that you learn as you work through a college course on a science subject is that science, in terms of the collective knowledge base and understanding level of its practitioners, is a moving field. The state of knowledge and understanding is constantly evolving, at a rate that is generally faster than the evolution of knowledge in other fields such as engineering. (One of my pet peeves is that many engineers like to think of themselves as scientists, but they mostly lack a sound understanding of the scientific method, and this soon shows up when they try opining on scientific topics. Some of the stupidest, logically defective opinions on scientific topics I have read originated with engineers. But I digress).
One of the phrases bandied about all of the time in debates in and around science is “scientific consensus”. This is regarded as a Bad Thing by people who are skeptical of science and/or hostile to the current majority opinions of scientists on key subjects and topics. For people hostile to the current position of the scientific community on topics such as global warming, the causes of autism, HIV/AIDS causes and a number of other “hot button” topics, the scientific consensus is a bad case of lockstep groupthink, where a majority of scientists decided what was true, and anybody in the scientific community who believes different is a heretic, an outcast, somebody whose views can safely be discounted or ignored.
Arguers against scientific consensus like to present themselves either as brave visionary mavericks, or if that fails, as martyrs to The Cause Of Truth. A common tactic is to compare themselves with Galileo, while totally failing to understand the message of the late Carl Sagan’s quote about that idea (“People laughed at Galileo. But they also laughed at Bozo the clown”).
Many disbelievers in science and its worldview like to take matters one step further, by alleging that scientific consensus is part of some evil conspiracy to force a narrow worldview on Everybody. If I could have a dollar for every time I have read the phrase “global warming” in the same sentence as the words “hoax”, “con” or “conspiracy” I would be writing this blog posting from Bora Bora, not the mainland USA. They often accuse scientists with whom they disagree of being “shills” or being paid to espouse their views. This is merely an example of the ad homimen fallacy, which should tell you that the critics in question have nothing substantive to offer. If you have to attack your opponent on a personal level, this is a solid indication that you really don’t have much of an argument.
David Gorski, a cancer specialist, has been writing about the misconceptions and outright falsehoods being promulgated against the scientific method for a long time. This latest posting about scientific consensus explains carefully how arguments against that concept are usually defective and deeply dishonest. Quacks and charlatans are quick to decry the scientific consensus as part of a process to de-legitimize the scientific method when it fails to support their own beliefs and ideas.
The main problem, as Gorski points out, is that you don’t obtain any credibility in the scientific community by complaining that a current concept or theory is defective or incorrect. The obligation on you is to suggest something better as an alternative. When a little-known patent clerk from Ulm, Austria by the name of Albert Einstein determined that the existing Newtonian theories of the dynamics of moving bodies were inadequate to fully explain or predict the behavior of large objects such as stars and planets (a problem that the scientific community knew about, but had been unable to resolve by tinkering with existing theories), instead of writing letters to newspapers whining about how wrong the scientists were, he went away, did some deep thinking, and then wrote a short paper, published in 1905 with the innocuous-sounding title of “On The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”. The paper soon changed the way in which scientists, physicists and astronomers viewed the world. Einstein, being a true scientist, applied his own thoughts to an un-solved problem and came up with a visionary solution. This is not what quacks, pseudo-scientists do. Like the armchair quarterback sitting with his beer whining that the quarterback missed an open receiver in the end zone, quacks, pseudo-scientists and peddlers of disinformation merely seek to create confusion by complaining about the real or perceived shortcomings of existing scientific theories. They seldom offer their own ideas, mostly because they are hilariously unqualified to do so. One of the more interesting aspects of the entire Global Warming debate (if it is possible to call it that) is that many of the critics of the scientific consensus on Global Warming are either not trained scientists, or possess degrees in disciplines totally unrelated to climate science. Ultimately their objections lack any credibility. They simply do not have the knowledge or background, so they act as armchair quarterbacks or bomb-throwers. They can and should be ignored.


Looking back beyond Donald Trump

The success of Donald Trump in capturing the Republican Party nomination for POTUS seemed to take a lot of people by surprise.
It should not have been a surprise.
The conditions that led to a self-proclaimed “non-politician” and insurgent steamrollering his way to the GOP nomination are not new. The GOP has been vulnerable to, and taking account of, insurgencies for over a decade.
Back in 2010, for example, Sharron Angle, a surprise winner of the GOP Senate primary in Utah, made a statement in a radio interview that was, in tone and substance, almost identical to Donald
Trump’s recent expression of hope that Second Amendment sympathizers would help the USA. This is Angle’s statement from 2010:

Angle: I feel that the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms for our citizenry. This not for someone who’s in the military. This not for law enforcement. This is for us. And in fact when you read that Constitution and the founding fathers, they intended this to stop tyranny. This is for us when our government becomes tyrannical…
Manders: If we needed it at any time in history, it might be right now.
Angle: Well it’s to defend ourselves. And you know, I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.

This looks remarkably similar to Trump’s recent statement.
Those of us who have been following the “birther” movement since 2007 know that many of the supporters and cheerleaders of that movement are also fans of “second Amendment remedies”. There is a lot of overlap between “birthers” and Sovereign Citizens, many of whom regard the Federal government as illegal and illegitimate, and who are, based on their numerous online pronouncements, simply waiting for the day when they can pull out their weapons and go Vanquish Evil. They are all geared up to fight the Second American Revolution, they just need a good excuse.
The takeover of many State-level Republican parties by the Tea Party since 2008 is a classic example of practical insurgency. The purpose of the Tea Party was to remake the GOP into what they considered to be a “true Conservative” party. One of the favorite tactics of Tea Party activists has been to paint opponents as “insufficiently Conservative”, “RINOs” etc. Effectively, they subjected incumbents to an ideological purity test, and if they were deemed to have failed, the Tea Party members would run their own candidates in an attempt (often successful) to install representatives more to their liking. Sometimes, as in the recent unseating of Renee Ellmers, the Tea Party not only installed their preferred candidate, but also deposed that candidate if they did not (in their view) adopt a radical enough approach once in office.
Sen. John McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential running mate in 2008 was a hint of what was going to occur in 2016. Palin fitted the insurgent mold. She was from a state (Alaska) not noted for producing national political figures; she was a woman from a seemingly hardscrabble background who had risen to be the Governor of Alaska; she was married to an authentic-looking outdoorsman; she had a family tragedy (Down’s Syndrome) that she used as a publicity prop; and she was good-looking, albeit in a clumsy and goofy way. She also had the ability to talk in disconnected, semi-nonsensical streams of consciousness, very similar to the speech patterns of Donald Trump. Her themes were a pervasive shout-out to God, Guns and Real America, with implied or actual sneering at “elites” and other groups who were clearly not Real Americans. (The desire to label anybody with a non-matching worldview as “not Real Americans” is now a well-developed obsession for practitioners of resentment politics in the modern USA).
The nomination of Palin proved to be a mini-disaster for the GOP. Palin lacked gravitas, and her dismissal of established norms (such as winking to the camera in the VP debate) made her look unserious. She became the butt of a thousand jokes, and further reduced her credibility by quitting as Governor of Alaska halfway into her term. However, for a long while, she was a heroine to the GOP, who saw in her a reflection of True American Values.
However awkward Sarah Palin was for the GOP, she at least was only the VP nominee. John McCain was there to provide the Gravitas and remind people that here was a serious person running for the office of POTUS.
The GOP today has no such get-out-of-jail card with Donald Trump. By definition, his position as the Presidential nominee puts him at the top of the pecking order, and his insurgent status allows him to ignore established norms in favour of anything that he thinks will work to get his message out. As a result, we are now being treated to a bizarre roller-coaster of speeches, tweets, and interviews where Trump zig-zags all over the map in terms of ideas, policy positions and claims, often contradicting himself multiple times a week. He appears to have no idea what he said yesterday, but hell, it doesn’t matter, here is what I am saying today. Most of what he says is provably nonsensical or untrue, but when challenged on it he either changes the subject or repeats the falsehoods.
However ludicrous and unserious Donald Trump appears to people who expect elected representatives to be sensible, thoughtful and careful, there is a serious underlying issue that his rise is signalling. While Trump’s behavior is the standard behavior of many demagogues throughout history, his attacks on “the establishment”, and his fire-hose offering of grandiose, simplistic solutions, are appealing compellingly to an audience, who, based on numerous studies, appears to comprise a significant number of Americans who believe that America is not meeting their needs, desires and expectations. The fact that Sharron Angle, promulgating a similar (although less scatter-shot) set of messages, could come within 4% of defeating Sen. Harry Reid in 2010 showed that a lot of electors were voting in favor of messages that asserted that the American Dream was not working for them.
One of the more important books of this year is J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”. It is a revealing portrait of the economically depressed and deprived areas of Appalachia and the Rustbelt, where recent changes in the structure of the US economy away from manufacturing and labor-intensive heavy industry have resulted in massive multi-generational unemployment, as formerly productive blue-collar workers were laid off and reduced to scrabbling to survive. Trump’s eager audience is disproportionately comprised of such people, who believe that neither of the major political parties gives a damn about them. Well, except for Donald Trump. He gets them!
Personally, I believe that Trump is playing the majority of his audience like a cheap violin, like the narcissistic huckster that he really is. I also believe that the GOP has been playing that audience for decades, using all manner of resentment dog-whistles. (I have never seen a Democratic party leader talking about “coastal elites”, but I read that kind of doublespeak all the time from GOP partisans). The fact that Donald Trump has found an audience of this size sends a powerful message that there are a lot of people who consider themselves to be losers in the modern American lottery. The hollowing out of many communities has been occurring for decades (and this is not confined to the USA), and the resentment that has been largely hidden (poor people generally don’t run websites, write memoirs or vote in large numbers) has taken a while to truly hit the national stage. We can see a similar pattern in the UK, where the voters who voted to leave the EU were either older, with ingrained suspicions against Europe, or from deprived areas of the UK, where they saw no upside to being in Europe, and in fact saw a downside as “foreigners” came in and took low-wage jobs that they thought were theirs.
The more interesting and dangerous issue is what will happen if Donald Trump (as seems likely based on current opinion polls) loses his bid for the Presidency. He and his supporters are already pre-messaging their unwillingness to accept a defeat by claiming that the system is rigged against them. This is, in my opinion, dangerously close to sedition. If they have evidence that the system is rigged against them (other than the fact that, you know, they have to have a majority of the votes to win), then they need to produce the evidence, or the rest of the political actors in the USA have to tell them to shut up. We may yet see rioting after the fact if the result does not go the way of some of the insurgent supporters. Dealing with riots by poor people in Appalachia will be difficult. They will not be black, or foreign, so they will not be dismissable on those grounds.


The PR problem for libertarianism

(also posted at Bleeding Heart Libertarians)
As long as a significant number of authoritarians adopt the self-identification of “libertarian” because it sounds cool and less, er, awkward when compared to “authoritarian”, libertarianism will continue to struggle to gain traction with people who self-identify as progressives.
Anecdotally, I often find myself attempting to explain to progressive people why (a) the libertarian movement is not entirely comprised of people who behave like dismissive, Darwinian. authoritarian assholes, and (b) why libertarianism has a lot of ideas that progressive people can and should embrace. I rarely get to (b) because I mostly cannot get past (a). On more than one occasion I have been told that I don’t talk like a libertarian. This seems to come down to the fact that people regard me as reasonable and pleasant.
The unfortunate conclusion to draw is that whatever libertarian (or libertarians) those people previously encountered did not make a favorable impression on an interpersonal level. This speaks to both a perception and communication problem for libertarianism. I read people on my Facebook who are currently seriously considering voting libertarian this election cycle, describing Gary Johnson as “smart” and “reasonable”. My view is that unlike (say) Ron Paul, he does not come across as a cranky curmudgeon. He is interpersonally appealing in a way that many libertarians are not.


Glenn Frey and The Eagles

The death of Glenn Frey at the age of 67 is an interesting event to experience.
He was, by normal life expectancy standards, still young at 67. The shock is magnified by the fact that most people of my age group who grew up listening to music have listened to and bought Eagles albums. Effectively, the Eagles formed part of the soundtrack of our early adult lives. The images of the members of the Eagles that predominate in our minds are of driven men in their twenties, West Coast cool, tight harmonies, and the rock n’roll lifestyle. Ironically, none of the band members were actually from California. Frey himself was born in Detroit, and like the other members, made his way to California in search of the musical holy grail.
Frey looked pretty much the same until quite recently, although recent images hint at both the onset of old age, and poor health. However, you always tend to remember younger versions of rock and roll royalty. The internet is full of images of the youthful rock and roll playboy Glenn Frey, not the haggard, older drooped-chin Glenn Frey. It is clear from tributes paid since his death that Frey was struggling for a long time with significant health issues. He had also discovered the virtues of family, having swapped the wild man of rock and roll lifestyle for a domestic existence that would have probably horrified his younger self.
The Eagles, for a while, certainly exemplified the rock and roll lifestyle. Frey himself once described the Eagles as “a great way for a man to spend his twenties”. The biographies of the Eagles confirm that the band members did indeed engage in all of the classic rock n’roll lifestyle behaviors of drink, drugs and many women to excess all through the 1970s as their fame and fortune grew massively.
Like many famous bands, the Eagles’ body of work comprises a relatively short period of time – an 8 year period from 1972 to 1980. The original core of the band – Frey, Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon, recorded the first two albums and some of the third album before they added Don Felder in late 1973, in order to give themselves the heft to play rock n’roll.
Along the way, the Eagles also slowly lost members. Bernie Leadon, who had more practical band experience than the other members, and who had less tolerance for the rock and roll lifestyle, was the first to leave in 1975, after his suggestion that the band not continue with their punishing tour schedule was ignored. Randy Meisner, whose family life also suffered from the same tour schedule, quit 2 years later. (Both men would be financially secure for life; the LP “Eagles Greatest Hits”, released in the mid-70’s, on which they appear, has sold a record 42 million units). The Eagles, despite public appearances, were officially a 3 man corporation thereafter (Frey, Henley and Felder) with Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmidt as salaried members, until Don Felder was fired in 2001. In true Hollywood fashion, lawsuits were exchanged over his firing, and not settled until 2009.
Don Henley’s polite allusion to “family dysfunctionalities” in his tribute to Frey was merely a confirmation of what has already been revealed by autobiographies – the Eagles band members often squabbled, and occasionally got into both legal and physical fights. Being a member of the Eagles was akin to taking part in some endurance race, albeit one with large financial rewards. Felder’s rift with Frey and Henley after his firing was permanent, and his own biography paints a picture of a band that was not a happy place. Large egos, drugs, wild women, too much touring, pressure to deliver the Next Great Album – what could possibly go wrong?
The Eagles made a lot of money in the late 1970’s, but it is clear that they were burned out physically and musically by 1980. Ultimately, the combination of burning the candle at both ends and in the middle led to the band going on hiatus for the best part of 15 years. The second and third acts, starting with the “Hell Freezes Over” tour, were mostly the band operating in jukebox mode, with only a small amount of new material being recorded and released. The tours were immensely popular and profitable, but there was no new music to play, so the sets comprised The Eagles Greatest Hits, plus solo material from Frey, Henley and Walsh.
Frey worked as a solo artist in the 1980’s and expanded into acting and production, as he tried to answer the question “what next?” Shorn of the Eagles backdrop, he showed his love for straight ahead pop and R&B. He had hit singles, but it is fair to say that neither he nor Don Henley came anywhere near their achievements as members of the Eagles.
Frey’s songwriting was praised in obituaries, but he was often a collaborator, especially on the early albums. “Take It Easy”, effectively the Eagles’ signature tune along with “Hotel California”, began life with Jackson Browne, who conceived the song structure and the first verse and chorus, handing it off to Frey, who wrote the memorable second verse about the girl in the flatbed Ford. Browne’s version of the song is much more sophisticated musically than the Eagles’ version, which is more straight-ahead rock n’roll, albeit with the organic country edge that Bernie Leadon provided (Leadon’s dancing banjo can be heard starting under the guitar solo and through the rest of the song). A number of other Eagles songs on the first 3 LPs were collaborations, or from other songwriters.
Frey matured into a more confident songwriter when the band transitioned to a rock and roll focus in the 1974-75 time period, moving away from the country-influenced acoustic sound that marked their first 2 LPs. Frey seems to have been the primary instigator of the transition. The first two albums were recorded in London with Glyn Johns producing, but Frey was frustrated with the production approach, which he felt was holding back the rock and roll side of the band, so the band relocated recording to the USA and the transition of the Eagles to full-bore rock and roll began. Ironically, “Best Of My Love”, the first major Eagles hit single, was the last song recorded in London produced by Glyn Johns.
I was a fan of the Eagles starting from the time when their first LP was released, but, as a guitar player and lover of natural sounding music, I steadily lost interest as the band morphed into a pop-rock band, spending progressively more time and money on studio work. I came to realize that I lost interest in the band when Bernie Leadon left. His acoustic-first approach, country playing style, and quirky approach to songwriting was one of the main reasons that I liked the band in the first place. My favorite Eagles tune is “Bitter Creek” from their second LP “Desperado”, which is their least-selling album. The song, written in Drop D tuning, sounds different to most of the other Eagles songs as a result, and the subject matter, typical for Leadon, is also different – is an introspective warning message, totally acoustic.
“Desperado” is my favorite Eagles album, simply because it seemed to me to be a genuine attempt at assembling a song cycle based on the myths of the Old West and the outlaw pathology (rock trivia fans always like to check out the dead outlaw images on the cover photos, which comprise the band and most of their songwriting collaborators of the time). It also sounds more coherent than their first or third albums, which are more uneven in terms of songwriting. I found “One Of These Nights” to be way too polished for my taste, and in hindsight, it was clear that Bernie Leadon was signaling his estrangement from the band, with his two compositions, “Journey Of The Sorcerer” and “I Wish You Peace”, being essentially solo compositions and recordings that did not fit with the rest of the album . By the time of “Hotel California”, every song on that album spoke to me saying “bunch of guys wrote average rock and roll songs and spent too much time in the studio working on them”. I listened to a friend’s copy of the LP several times, resolved to not buy it, and that was that. You couldn’t fault the technical excellence of the band, the songs and the harmonies, but for me, something important had gone missing along the way. The band had lost its emotional and organic musical core, trading it for polished rock and roll glitz. Large dollops of fame and fortune were the result, of course.
How good a songwriter was Glenn Frey? It is a difficult question to answer, because most of his better-known compositions were actually collaborations. I regarded him more as a synthesizer of ideas and source of vision, both of which are important skills if you want to be a musical artist. He was not prolific, it seemed to me that he relied more on important virtues like crafting than on wells of inspiration. I see him less as a great songwriter and more as the source of focus and drive for the early Eagles, unafraid to work to kick the band along to bigger and better things.


10 Ways to let me know not to engage you in debate

Folks, in this electoral cycle, which is an issue-rich environment, I do not have all the time in the world to engage people in discussion and debate. I have a day job, family members to look after, cats to tend to, a plane to get back in the air in 2016, and a couple of books to write.
I am having to choose my discussion engagements wisely. I have therefore begun to apply some filters to discussions or comments. Here is a list of filter tests that I am applying. If somebody’s comment meets one or more of those filtering tests, I am highly unlikely to respond to it.

1. You state that “abortion is murder”
Wishing that something were true does not make it so. Neither does repeatedly insisting that it is true. Insisting that abortion is murder shows me that you are living in an alternate reality of your own making. As a general rule, I don’t engage with people who live in alternate realities. It wastes both of our time.

2. You state that “Atheism is a religion”
As a commentator once observed, Atheism Is a religion like “Off” is a TV channel. This is nothing more than projection.

3. You state that “science is a religion”
I am a trained scientist, and I know that this assertion is also nothing more than weapons-grade projection. If you think this is true, then you are in that alternate reality that I have no interest in.

4. You believe that Christians are being persecuted in the USA
My normal reaction to this will be ridicule. This is the easiest country in which to found and grow a religion. Just look at the number of religion founders who have become very rich and famous, despite (in some cases) peddling total bullshit for decades or longer. The law allows for religious exemptions all over the place, and churches get tax exemptions with next to no scrutiny from the IRS. If you can’t tell the difference between privilege and equal treatment under the law, then you have some gaps in your education that are your problem to address, not mine.

5. Your comment includes insult words like “Obummer”, “libtard”, “CONservative”, “Rethug”, “sheeple” etc.
This one should be rather obvious. I don’t discuss serious subjects with juveniles. If you are an adult, write like one.

6. Your comment begins with an ad hominem fallacy, containing (but not limited to) one of the following phrases:
a. “the liberal media”
b. “unlike you liberals”
The ad hominem fallacy is nothing more than juvenile name-calling. I am also a Classical Liberal, not a strawman liberal so beloved of authoritarian nitwits in the modern USA.

7. You engage in tone trolling, complaining about style while ignoring substance

When people complain about a person’s “style”, “arrogance”, “condescension” etc. they are not discussing substance. They are usually complaining that their feelings are hurt. Your butthurt is your problem, not mine. You control your reactions to what you read and see. If you complain about style, you’re ignoring substance.

8. You believe that liberals, socialists, communists and marxists are all politically similar and that they all belong to the Democratic party
This clearly demonstrates that you are clueless about both politics and world history. I am not in the business of discussions with people who can’t be bothered to learn anything about those subjects.

9. Your comment contains one or more instances of rhetorical devices including (but not limited to)
c. If you don’t like this country, then leave
d. If xxx happens, I’m leaving the country
This demonstrates two bad syndromes – acute Binary Thinking and intolerance of dissent. Nobody is under any obligation to agree 100% with anything that happens in their country of birth or country of residence. 100% agreement in electorates is usually only found in the worst totalitarian dictatorships. Dissent is not disloyalty, and people who can’t tell the difference have a bigger challenge that I’m not in the business of trying to help them with. They need to help themselves.

10. The use of ALL CAPS to emphasize words, phrases or complete sentences
This is SHOUTING. Words or phrases do not magically become more powerful or truthful when written in all caps. Actually, that draws attention to them for the wrong reasons. One of the reasons being that they are usually an indication of anger on the part of the writer, and anger is a contra-indication to good thinking and writing. The other reason is that they are often assertions that are disconnected from fact or reality.


The qualifications of Ben Carson to be POTUS

Every time there is a Presidential election in the USA, trees are felled and converted to communicate tedious and ultimately almost irrelevant discussions as people seek the answer to one question: is the candidate qualified to be POTUS?
On one level, the question is pretty much unanswerable. There is only one job of POTUS. There is no apprenticeship for the job. Vice-President is a ceremonial role, usually occupied by a person deemed to be no threat to the POTUS.
Running a country is NOT the same as running a business. Anybody who claims that it is should be asked to explain how it is the same. Answers like “balancing the checkbook” will instantly show the person to be unserious.
So, a lot of viewpoints about qualifications boil down to intangibles, like the horrible question about whether somebody “looks Presidential”. This implies that being POTUS is all about artifice and posing, not achivements, a triumph of style over substance.
On one level, however, it has never been easier to examine a person’s qualification to be POTUS. The internet can be a good source of information as long as the information is verified.
In the case of Ben Carson, a well-known pediatric surgeon, one interesting viewpoint on his qualifications is that of fellow medical practitioners. The view is not flattering.


The mess at LSU

LSU starts the season 7-0 and looks to be cruising to the playoffs. Then they lose 3 in a row, and suddenly total madness breaks out in Baton Rouge. Now the talk is that LSU will buy out the contract of head coach Les Miles and his staff. This will cost them somewhere between $15-20m.
In the meantime, the university has been slashing faculty costs because of a shortage of money.
Yep, that really makes sense.
If I am Les Miles, I am already out of LSU. The university, whether they wanted to get rid of him or not, has already lost him. Now 2016 recruits are already concluding that LSU is not where they want to be.
More seriously, who is going to want to take the job after Miles? Sure, the money is good, but if the program’s boosters are so entitled that they are prepared to jettison the most successful coach in the history of LSU because the team lost 3 games, what hope does a new coach have that they will not suffer the same fate. At a mimumum, it should make them ask for the same buyouts that Les Miles appears to have in his contract.
In the meantime, LSU has one more regular season game to play. I wonder how much motivation Les Miles can instill in his team now?