dan's blog

Denialism, climate, economics, power n ting

Oops, another P3 comment, discussing this lovely little refutation from Krugman today.
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Yes, that's the clearest bit of refutation I've seen recently (and the FRED data is awesomely accessible), though Krugman's been doing the same day in day out for years: "you say x about economics? Here's the evidence and here's the macro 101 that we've known for decades that says y."

This is excellent: "it’s not often that you see an economic theory fail so utterly and completely. Yet that theory’s grip on the GOP has only strengthened as its failure becomes ever more undeniable."

Krugman's work - and the post you highlight here is a fantastic exemplar of that - illustrates what's wrong with another recent take on `economic denialism' (I wonder what you think of this?) by Aditya Chakrabortty. From this point of view, all neoclassical economists (Krugman's one; my PhD uses his core-periphery model extensively for spare parts) are merely "high priests" blessing existing power structures with their otherwise meaningless mathematical incantations.

Which, if it were true, actually matches what Krugman's accusing Republicans of. As Phillip Ball puts it, it's all “citadels of crystalline mathematical perfection that would shatter if touched by the harsh rays of reality” (Ball 2007 p.647). This Krugman post is a nice illustration that's not true of all economists - and I think the difference isn't in the models, it's in the modellers' understanding of their uses and meaning. In that respect, it's quite different to, say, climate modelling (I think). (Nice Marshall quote on that: "economic laws and reasonings in fact are merely a part of the material of which conscience and common-sense have to make use in solving practical problems, and in laying down rules which may be a guide to life.” Marshall 1895.)

Which is not to deny there's a definite relationship between power structures and a particular, brittle set of economic concepts - Krugman himself acknowledges this when he explains why he pursued a general equilibrium form for the core-periphery model as a way to entice others in his field to consider geography: "mainstream economics isn’t going away: like it or not, the White House has a Council of Economic Advisers, not a Council of Geographical Advisers, the World Bank hires lots of economists and not many geographers." (The New Economic Geography, Now Middle Aged, 2010, PDF.)

So yeah - we're looking at much the same process that I mentioned standing out so clearly in the Boston Globe's coverage of Willie Soon. Economics, climate... doesn't matter. Evidence seems to end up like a butterfly in a gale when it approaches power centres.

The obvious answer seems to be to remove the influence of money in politics - but to get that via any current democratic route, you'd need politicians to vote for who eschew major donations. They would lose. Or you would need politicians to vote for imposing, say, modest but even state-funded campaigns - and again, of course, if they're already on the money, how will that happen?

Make more political space in climate change discussions

Another second-hand post via a P3 comment. I wish I could let those rants loose here a bit, seems commenting elsewhere lets them out. Anyway, here's the second half of the comment:
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Update: this thread's picked up over at Stoat's blog.
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I've been having a rather odd week listening to some people who, in theory, accept the science of climate change but have bought a truckload of political assumptions with them. I never used to think this was a problem: so, some left-leaning people accept the science, perhaps for non-scientific reasons? So what? Now I'm not so sure. A recent example from Naomi Klein that kind-of captures what I mean - actually citing Tyndall Centre scientists too, arguing for degrowth as the only effective response.

I have no problem with scientists having views on what should be done, but I am worried about lazily assuming climate change just happens to support your political view. Right-wing laziness is its mirror: reject the science rather than think about political solutions that would work.

It's a severe cultural problem. Last night I heard Duncan Clark lecturing on his and Mike Berners-Lee's book, the Burning question. Spot-on stuff. The follow-up round of questions from mostly left-leaning academics (of which I'm one) made me uncomfortable. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that anyone sees an issue through the prism of their own views on how the world should be - of course we do that. But there's something about the climate change issue that really makes me want to run in the other direction: there are solutions that have naff all to do with, say, getting rid of consumerist culture. I keep on posting this, but David Mitchell nails my feeling on it. There's a version of the future where - hmm, maybe not the North Pole - but where Jeremy Clarkson gets to drive a 4x4 to the South Pole while drinking gin - only it's not powered by a carbon fuel. That's culturally unacceptable to many on the left, but climate change absolutely does not rule it out. (Maybe some other environmental issues might intervene...!)

The future may the constrained - but it always has been. The problem isn't the existence of constraints, it's backtracking from our current position. I still want a future where, if someone happens to want to spend all their money on some awful gas guzzling monster that I hate because I'm a tofu-knitting Guardianista, they're fecking allowed to. This may be self-justification. I don't fly or drive, but I'd quite like to pay the 5p ish an hour for my stupidly power-hungry graphics card, so I can play childish games, without being made to feel like I'm stealing winter fuel from an old age pensioner. (I'd also like policies that protect OAPs from the cold, but again: climate change doesn't actually stop us, if we want, from marching old people out onto freezing moors and letting them die of exposure as a way to conserve resources...)

I suppose this is just a variant of the hairshirts vs techno-utopians thing, but... well, not really. That's the thing I like about the price system: me getting to decide I'm OK with my 5p-an-hour watt-guzzling eternal adolescence and someone else being OK with their stupid 20 foot high truck with wheels the size of small cars. There's a bigger question there about distribution of wealth - but that's emphatically NOT a climate change question, despite what anyone may argue.

Urgh. Leftie guardianista arguing for more space for right-wing ideas in climate discussion.

The transition movement = groovy (but not just for the reasons it says it's groovy)

Just a quick clarifying post, following the previous PhD wiffle, where I picked on the transition movement to come up with some modelling questions. I want to say this now so I don't keep on repeating myself in later posts: it's not my intention to try and disprove the relevance of what the transition movement is doing. Whatever the merits of any assumptions its actions are based on, I have nothing but the highest respect for people working to reclaim some direct control over their own economic destinies. I am acutely aware that one of the historic roles of quantitative modelling (whether implicitly or otherwise) has been as a tool to justify robbing people of agency. This is especially true in its most pervasive form, finance-ministry-condoned economic methods: incredibly consistent across the world, and something no-one has a great deal of choice in since the vast majority of political parties do little more than tinker at the edges.

That use of models is, unsurprisingly, not something I have any desire to contribute to - but I don't think that should mean rejecting quantitative methods as a tool for helping steer our direction of travel. Economic self-determination is a good thing - I see no reason why quant methods shouldn't support it. We should have a future where quant planning tools work with the grain of democratic decision making and public action. There are reasons why, theoretically, quant tools have tended to go against that grain; again, that's a topic for later.

It's not an easy problem to solve. Here's an instructive example I hope to study in a bit more depth, off the back of this paper (a colleague of mine is a co-author). It aims to probe the idea of `smart cities'. The concept has, it seems, gained a lot of traction in US planning circles; David Roberts has argued strongly in support of the idea and his articles via that link give a good overview.

But the `takeaway for practice' from the JAPA article is:

Urban form policies can have important impacts on local environmental quality, economy, crowding and social equity, but their influence on energy consumption and land use is very modest: compact development should not automatically be associated with the preferred spatial growth strategy.

That's quite a modest set of conclusions: `compact development' is not necessarily a carbon and energy cure-all. The fundamental reason the paper finds this is that it actually adds some economics of land use to the problem. I need to get a special symbol for "I'll come back to this"... but the crucial part of this story has been the reaction: it seems to have caused a pretty intense ruckus among those with a deep commitment to the smart growth / smart cities idea.

Which leads me to wonder about the problems involved in linking quant/economic modellers and decision-makers - not just policymakers, but the kind of people working at a local level in the transition movement. It's easy enough to envision some perfectly healthy relationship between the two, but the reality is (and has always been, actually) pretty dysfunctional.

One solid reason for that: it's much harder to roll a boulder up a hill when someone's following you up questioning your rolling method the whole time. Social action benefits from having an agreed set of assumptions to work with. Despite these thoughts on the transition movement I am still, when it comes down to it, quite unsure about some of the fundamental assumptions that drive it. But like that climate cartoon ("what if its a great hoax and we create a better world for nothing?") dense economic webs made up of a froth of small-scale activity stand entirely on their own merits. Cop out? Hmm.

Update: but I reserve the right to change my mind about quant models. There's a small but definite risk that, on further investigation, it might become obvious that the democratic downsides outweigh any actual insight they might supply, and we should thus break the fingers of all coders attempting to model society. Harsh but fair, and I'll offer my own fingers up for the hammer first.

What was the PhD all about then? #1: where did the final topic come from?

Now that it's finally over, let's have a go at writing about the PhD. Here's a page with the full PDF and live model runs if anyone's interested in a glance-through. The model output pics in the results chapters are probably the nice bits to look at.

I'll break it down into blog chunks rather than attempt to deal with it all at once. Unfortunately I think there's no way around starting with a cathartic "once upon a time" ramble back through how it ended up the way it did - as always, likely of more value to me than anyone else.

The original idea was all that Hayekian stuff: is there really a problem with planning in complex systems? Can something like agent-based modelling (ABM) be used to dig into the question? (Some people think Hayek would have been an agent modeller had he had access to the technology.)

That question lost its appeal when it became apparent (due to the work of Elinor Ostrom and others) that people can generally muddle through to solutions that have little to do with either Hayek's "plan to resist all planning" (Oakshotte) or the totalitarian demon he so vividly summoned (Cartoon version here!)

Oh hai NSA/GCHQ kiss kiss

Hey NSA/GCHQ. How's it going? I'm writing this in Evernote and, being a cloud service, let's presume it's getting harvested. I'm sure nothing I'll say would be likely to trigger your early warning systems, but just, you know - saying hello. It's the principle, really. Some random thoughts, thanks for storing a backup for me. These may seem a bit shrill - watching the UK's massive "meh" has made me that way.

Libertarians vindicated then? A supposedly liberal-minded law professor as US president, this is what we get. The enabling tech is, historically, hardly out of the womb - but we've now seen the state's response to it as clearly as one could hope for - and it turns the internet on its head. We've volunteered to integrate monitoring devices into our personal and working lives and, on the whole, seem happy to trade the tangible convenience gained for what may seem like entirely abstract 'privacy' issues (as Henry Porter laments). I know, I'm so far doing the same.

Politicians' easy dismissal - and Hague's truly astonishing nothing to fear quote - do they genuinely see no potential threat from political change in the future? Dumbasses. Contrast all this to the reaction to ID cards. Opposition there boiled down to "all that information in one database, scary!" What do we have instead? A public/private mashup including some companies that reach right into the tiniest corners of our lives, producing a data nexus that has soooo much more potential than the ID card system (as the NSA/GCHQ partnership has recognised and worked to exploit).

People generally think about the threat back-to-front, imagining the worst scenario being the Chinese experience: monitored, blocked, controlled. In the future, the risk may instead come from the information in the gaps (exformation is not a nice word!) The result is that, if a tiny minority attempt to challenge the setup, they'll show up in big flashy lights against the general background acceptance of our voluntarily adopted pocket tracking devices and Breaking Bad viewing machines.

It's easy enough to picture a future where everyone posts to facebook or a version of it. Over time, a social norm becomes a requirement in business and then eventually a state requirement: failing to let the world know how breakfast was immediately singles you out as deviant. There must be some reason why you'd withold your status update; every good citizen shows they're happy to be transparent. You have nothing to fear, after all, right?

The same applies to the location information collectable just from triangulating via masts. Given some half-decent demographic information and a search engine I could knock up some algorithm for matching "radical leanings" to phone location, providing a handy system for identifying gathering of trouble types. Fuck it, why not go the whole hog and build in an auto-drone attack, while we're waxing dystopian? Note the kind of phone data already gathered from triangulation - GPS not required, all already available to security services, all already matched against one firm's existing demographic data.

This reminds me of an almost quaint-seeming ritual we'd go through at some direct action meetings: removing batteries from mobiles. We didn't do this until we were all in the room. Up to that point, we could just have been a bunch of friends at the pub. Imagine a map of a city's triangulated phone positions, down to the 200m square resolution (I think) that `smart steps' above promises: you'd see a mass of indistinguishable signals. But code in a simple test: flash red any set of signals that deactivate within a nine-square block within an hour time window. The very act of removing our phone signals more or less simultaneously would be easily detectable. If you have nothing to hide, why are you deactivating your personal tracking device? If several of you are doing it...?

The internet was always an international relations 101 lesson waiting to be learned. It's been sold as a light-speed hi-tech manifestation of Freedom - that flowed very well with the grain of a certain kind of Freem n Moxy propaganda. If the net genuinely threatens the main power blocks controlling it (the US currently) you'll soon see how natural that freedom really is. Again, another good call today for engineers to get stuck in to reversing the "US betrayal of the internet". But it's an open question: wasn't this idea of the Net as a neutral substrate always nonsense?

As that article suggests, though, maybe the answer is Hayekian (or I read it that way): to neuter totalitarian power build up, you distribute it. The internet can, obviously, be exactly that kind of structure - but it's still cables and satellites and routers. Realistically, can the internet ever develop genuine immunity to exploitation and control? What happens now?

The innocent

You didn't. Did you? Sweet baby Jesus, you did. William Hague: "If you are a law-abiding citizen of this country, going about your business and your personal life, you have nothing to fear."

Growth schmowth

The PhD continues to parasitise my brain/life/soul, but occasionally some other stuff accidentally burps out a random orifice, usually at planet3.org. So here's a comment on MT's reflections on Bill Gates' reflections on growth.

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MT: "Which means, presuming most of this activity is worthwhile, that wealth not only accumulates but that the accumulation always accelerates."

This is interesting: I don't think it's how most economists or users of national accounts would view it, but it's an important point that's probably usually overlooked. There is - AFAIK and I could be wrong - no direct connection made between that throughput and other concepts of persistent wealth. We talked a while back about e.g. Diane Coyle suggesting a move to measuring wealth rather than GDP, but the connection between the two is murky and perhaps not as straightforward as we'd like.

An obvious counter-example (if I'm understanding your main point correctly and I may well not be): a steady-state economy. Take just the food-production sector and assume two other things: renewable inputs/closed waste loops (that's two things!) and traditional econ101 Ricardian exchange. I make falafels and you make wine. We trade. Monies are exchanged, GDP is produced - but no additional wealth. Presuming the amount we make varies little, the goods are, literally in this case, consumed over time at a constant rate. Wealth remains static, goods and money flow.

Now, that's obviously not what our current civilisation is doing at the moment: one would *hope* we were creating some form of wealth given the environmental capital we're spending. But I just wanted to make clear that it's possible to have GDP with zero-change wealth. Which, for me, makes your geeky elaboration a bit brain-hurty - possibly again because I don't get it, but also because I think you blur wealth and economic throughput and those things need more clearly separating.

I think this is right: "Growth in the conventional sense is used as a proxy for the rate at which the rate at which wealth increases increases." (update: no I don't think that, I missed the nesting!) In the example I just gave, if we found some technology that could maintain our little steady state food production system but increase output harmlessly, we'd be better off. (Note, here's a use for the idea of utility: without it, you've actually got no way to know you got wealthier. Though you might want to argue a larger quantity of falafels and wine automatically implies an increase in wealth, I don't think that stands up to scrutiny when a larger group of people who don't care for them. But that's another story.)

"If there is any sense in which economic growth in the conventional definition can be maintained indefinitely, it must increasingly be focused on symbolic rather than substantive wealth. // Nature shows us that natural wealth gradually accumulates in such circumstances. Could economies function like that?"

I mostly agree, but as usual want to note that atoms can be re-arranged in ways that can provide more value. I don't think that in a steady-state economy, development will stop. I don't think it's quite possible to separate the symbolic from the substantive. Probably being a stuck record now but I'm always reminded of Read Montague:

All computations are not created equal. Some cost more to run, and some provide better long-term payoffs to the organism. For biological computations, efficient solutions have won the competition. How do we know? Because your brain is merely warm - you can safely touch your head - while the processor in your personal computer is so wastefully hot that it heats your office and you can’t touch it with a bare finger. Why is the brain so efficient? The why is obvious; life is hard and competition fierce, so biological computers could never afford to be grossly inefficient like our personal computers. But the question is, how do biological computers achieve such efficiency?

Development in a steady state economy (and consequently wealth creation) will perhaps be equally algorithmic - not entirely physical or symbolic but the development of the link between those substrates. Cities are the prime site for that kind of development.

Though that's all a bit stoned: I don't think we're anywhere near genuinely decoupling constant material throughput increase from development.

"The obvious and widely held idea among intelligent people that indefinite growth is either meaningless or impossible makes no inroads while being met with no rebuttal."

I've been reading Enough is enough which makes much the same point. Even gone to a meeting. I'm still sympathetic but extremely skeptical. The argument is being made by people with a constellation of views inimical to most of the planet's population. I struggle particularly with well-to-do liberal elites arguing that the problem is a culture of more. That is just so obviously a doomed political platform! And it only just occurs to me, it's kind of the mirror image of what the UK tories do when they accuse the poorest of having too much money (which they're doing A LOT). So there is a long way to go before the political problem is solved, even if the mathematical case is watertight.

On finance: I'm actually a bit annoyed I have to concede this point as in lots of ways I think the link between interest and growth is misrepresented, but here we are - "when interest rates are close to the rate of economic growth/ you can run a budget deficit forever as long as the primary deficit is balanced. The debt load as a share of the economy won't increase over time. And if interest rates are lower than the pace of growth — as they are now — the load will actually shrink while you run those smaller deficits."

Which is possibly fine for a period of, say, rebuilding your shiny new green infrastructure and works out OK: borrow to grow. But at some point, things have to balance out it would appear.

Lastly: I'm just reading Red Plenty. It's AMAZING so far, a must-read. Two things strike me from it. First, steady-state folks (as well as anyone arguing that the entire economic structure of the planet must change to save us - not an unreasonable thing to claim) must not forget what all the biggest political and physical battles have been about over the last hundred years. We are discussing massive economic and political transformation. When did that ever happen consensually and without bloodshed?

And relatedly, Red Plenty does an awesome job of showing how vital growth was to the cold war. Darn, haven't got it with me, there's a great quote... something like `economic growth is the main front in the war between the superpowers'. It's perhaps ironic that, as well as on purely material terms, that battle also ended up being played out through truly astonishing amounts of public spending on things like the space programme.

But all that underscores the point: we shouldn't underestimate the scale of the stakes. The twentieth century was defined by exactly this kind of battle. Relatedly, I think it was in John Lanchester's book, he suggests (no evidence, but it's a nice idea!) that the end of cold war led directly to the financial crisis: the West no longer needed to maintain the impression for its citizens that its economic model was self-evidently superior. The economic battle for our souls was over and that changed more than we realised at the time.

One line summary then: degrowth arguments that start with genteel profs pointing out how an exponential works can quickly end up full-on political revolution territory, with everything that entails. Many of those arguing for it are, as far as I've seen, insensitive to this point - though it's very early days for the idea as a political campaign, and those people I've seen working on it are consciously setting out to test their ideas in the realm of nuts and bolts politics, in the UK at least, so we'll see.
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Also: "Oh Jesus Christ, even by my standards, that was a ridiculously long comment! Sorry!"

Google Gargoyle

A Slashdot reader commenting on google glass nabs some apposite chunks from Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash (written in 1992 mind you!):

Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time. ...

Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter. wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they're talking to you, but they're actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead. For all he knows, Lagos is standing there measuring the length of Hiro's cock through his trousers while they pretend to make conversation. ...

"Where the hell are you, Hiro?"

"Walking down a street in L.A."

"How can you be goggled in if you're walking down a street?"

Then the terrible reality sinks in: "Oh, my God, you didn't turn into a gargoyle, did you?"

"Well," Hiro says. He is hesitant, embarrassed, like it hadn't occurred to him yet that this was what he was doing. "It's not exactly like being a gargoyle. Remember when you gave me shit about spending all my money on computer stuff?"

"Yeah."

"I decided I wasn't spending enough. So I got a beltpack machine. Smallest ever made, I'm walking down the street with this thing strapped to my belly. It's really cool."

"You're a gargoyle."

"Yeah, but it's not like having all this clunky shit strapped all over your body. . ."

"You're a gargoyle. ..."

"Actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid"

"Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made." (Misattributed to Bismarck.) This Springs to mind every time I try and write recently, though with "research projects" replacing "laws". Equally, I'm not sure people would lose respect for their sausages if they saw them being made, so much as gain a gag reflex. We don't want that in research either.

But it would be nice to blog. More than nice: I think it's a very useful thing to do, for one's own research progress especially. There are many entirely sterile academic blogs that do little more than promote: how great and wonderful the project is and what fantastic impact and outputs result (though note this entertaining if rather undiplomatic post by a prof in my department... sterile, it is not.) Promotion is necessary, to be sure, but by itself both boring and a tragic waste of the potential of blogging.

Writing is thinking in action. There's a common misconception that it's a two-stage process: staring out into space until an idea arrives, then transcribing that Platonic idea down into word form. Not so. The writing process itself is is a form of thinking.

Anyone who keeps a field diary or a work journal does a lot of that privately, of course – but the process of writing blog entries offers a different kind of thinking. You are, after all, writing for an audience, even if no-one actually comes and reads. They might. You never know. That slight additional pressure enables a blog to help the researcher formulate what the hell it is they're really doing and thinking. That's incredibly useful: having a place that's not just a work journal but that also doesn't impose the kind of austere control required for assembling a full paper.

The problem with blogs is also its advantage, at least for me. I often want to write about stuff I'm trying to work out. It really helps. But that thinking-in-public is a little tricksy. What I'd like to do in the rest of this post is say why I think that's worth pursuing anyway. I'll do that with a couple of ideas. One: blogs are good places for "actively seeking out opportunities to feel stupid". Two: good shit happens in those murky stupid places where you're poking your nose into the darkness beyond the streetlight you're looking under.

Idea one: Martin Schwartz on the importance of stupidity in scientific research. He is talking specifically about the physical sciences, but it applies elsewhere. He tells the story of an incredibly intelligent friend of his who left research because 'it made them feel stupid'. Puzzling over this for a while, he realised:

Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling.

Huh. He explains his idea of 'productive stupidity': an 'immersion in the unknown' where it's impossible to know the outcome. As he says, 'if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying'. Schwartz is careful to contrast this with the idea of 'relative stupidity' that most people grow up with: learning in a system that ranks people on a scale and where it was always possible to be the least stupid in a group. Research is not like that; Schwartz's friend was too uncomfortable with it to stay.

Nicholas Harberd, in his excellent diary of a working plant scientist, captures what those moments feel like:

Of course science is always like this. There are peaks and troughs. I’ve experienced both. But the problem with being in a trough is that it is a place from which the view is limited. There is the feeling of being trapped with no way out. And always the question of how long the entrapment will last. A self-sustaining state: at the time when new vision is most needed, it is most unlikely to come. [p.6]

So this isn't really stupidity. It can make you feel stupid. That feeling (as Harberd hints at) isn't comfortable or easy. The trick that Schwartz learned – and his friend couldn't – was not to take it personally. This is a lesson that physical libraries can teach as well – something that's easy to forget when it seems like all knowledge is only a google away. Taking a walk through journal stacks instills this feeling in me. It's very easy to imagine being an ant crawling in a vast nest of knowledge, only a tiny sliver of which any single person could ever keep in their own skull – but little ants or not, it's our job to keep that corpus alive and evolving over time.

I'm not saying there aren't times when applying one's existing knowledge to problems isn't valid – of course it is. Geography has many planning- related applications. Planners, not unreasonably, want tried and tested methods, not voyages into darkness. But how are new ideas are discovered? Do we still value that?

Idea two: the streetlight effect. As Kirman explains, it:

corresponds to the behaviour of the person who, having dropped their keys in a dark place, chose to look for them under a streetlight since it was easier to see there (Kirman 1992 p.134).

This has a larger scope than simply "refusing to be stupid" and staying under one's streetlight. All researchers work within disciplines (or possibly Kuhnian paradigms) that shape how they see the world they're investigating. Economics is an instructive example: those outside the discipline often view it is the archetypal methodological utopia, creating "citadels of crystalline mathematical perfection that would shatter if touched by the harsh rays of reality" (Ball 2007 p.647). Many economists, however, openly acknowledge this without rejecting economics outright. Overman describes "the tendency to privilege particular economic forces purely because they are more amenable to the theoretical and empirical tools used by mainstream economists" (Overman 2004 p.504). Summers notes the result: "it is all too easy to confuse what is tractable with what is right" (Summers 1991 p.145). Krugman, as is often the case, puts it best and nicely ties back to the streetlight: "the methodology of economics creates blind spots. We just don’t see what we can’t formalise" (Krugman 2008).

These economists are self-aware; it gives them a humility and caution about the power of economic models (a humility entirely absent in much agent modelling; consider this recent example in the Economist - a topic for another time). But it doesn't actually alter the basic point: economics works under its own streetlight.

I've spent a lot of my time in the past few years asking: what happens to the landscape when costs change? Short answer: no-one exactly knows. There are no existing methods capable of answering the question fully – though of course there are many streetlights to look under. If someone from the transition movement tells you we need to relocalise to adapt to upcoming cost changes, how do you answer? Are they right? How do we know either way?

My current project has its specific goals but, for me, an equally important aim is to ask these questions openly. As the blog's intro post said this is all "good old fashioned location theory question, but 21st century challenges are breathing new life into it." This is true: there has never been a more relevant time for geography of all stripes.

This is important for another reason: the pickle we're in, globally. The kind of innovations we need will not come from being shy about our lack of knowledge or being closed to collaboration. In his 'stupidity' article, Schwartz says "science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals". This reality can turn collaboration and openness into little more than empty sentiment: something we'd like to do in theory but that goes too firmly against the grain of academic practice. Academic blogging, however, helps with that. For a start, it achieves that all-important job of staking out what your ideas are publicly. It can also act as a prototyping tool for ideas that may end up in more formal academic outlets.

There's a deeper point also. As Dougald Hine lays out so eloquently in his recent lecture, the world is changing around the university. The kind of knowledge-creating relationships we'll need to in the coming decades may not look like they did in the past.

Refs:

Schwartz, M.A., 2008. The importance of stupidity in scientific research. J Cell Sci 121, 1771–1771.
Harberd, N., 2006. Seed to Seed: The Secret Life of Plants, First American Edition. ed. Bloomsbury USA.
Kirman, A.P., 1992. Whom or What Does the Representative Individual Represent? Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Economic Perspectives 6, 117–36.
Ball, P., 2007. Social science goes virtual. Nature 448, 647–648.
Overman, H., 2004. Can we learn anything from economic geography proper? Journal of Economic Geography 4, 501–516.
Summers, L.H., 1991. The Scientific Illusion in Empirical Macroeconomics. The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 93, 129–148.
Krugman, P. (2008). ‘How I work’. URL: http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/howiwork.html

Small god rant

A facebook comment that got a little out of hand, responding to someone who does sterling work combatting religious idiocy but sometimes, for me, tips over into a kind of belicose anti-god stance that, for some reason I haven't quite managed to nail down yet, I find difficult to stomach.
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I've come across plenty of other people, like myself, who just can't get that hung up about the use of the term "god" and are quite happy living in a world where asking "does god exist" is just a nonsensical question. Is there a beardy skyman I should listen to on all important matters? No. Is there a role in human society for using such concepts to order our understanding of the universe? Maybe. Historically, definitely - including using these forms to actually organise resource management and social structures very effectively.

For me, it's the same mistake planners made in Bali when they screwed their rice production systems up. As Lansing puts it, the history of Western science has been the continuation of "a centuries-old battle against superstition. From this perspective, magic is the antithesis of rational thought."

Don't pay too much attention to word 'magic' there; maybe use "set of socially mediated principles for ordering reality". We have those, we just mostly can't see them because, well - we think it's reality. To an extent we've meshed our weltanschauung with our accretion of scientific knowledge, but that doesn't change our basic nature.

I'm not saying it's purely functional either. My sense of my place in the entire universe, whether I get that from staring at Hubble pictures or my own navel - if I want to call that a spiritual thing, I think I should be allowed without being accused of wanting BeardySkyMan to tell me what to do.

I'm never quite sure what I'm arguing against. It's not like I personally make much use of the "god" concept (or possibly any). But I can see how others might and I don't really see why anyone has a problem with that - so long as they don't go around saying "my god has told me you two men must stop kissing each other otherwise I'll have to stick a spike through your head". If that's the issue, work on stopping people being such intolerant twats. There are plenty of incredibly tolerant and brilliant religious/ spiritual people in the world. I'm unclear why anyone would e.g. want to undermine the stuff going on here.

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