New Green Party leader on GM and Rothamsted

Robert Wilson and Mark Lynas picked up on a Pod Delusion interview with the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett. James O'Malley spoke to her about GM and the Rothamsted trial (that me and Sue responded to at the time with this open letter). Natalie’s response is troubling, for reasons I’ll discuss below – and not just her position on GM. Many of the usual tropes appear (some of which me and Sue targetted in the open letter), especially regarding corporate control. I’ve transcribed the key bits here with the time location for the mp3. Discussion after the transciption. She notes to start with that:

The Green Party doesn't whip. We allow divergent views and if something does come up I don't agree on, I just need to say, my personal view is that but the party line is that and the party has no problem with it.

But of course, she’s the leader of the party now and so her views on this stuff do matter – not least for my own choice at the ballot box. I’ve voted for the Greens in the past, but with recent events over Rothamsted? This interview as it stands, I think, rules me out of voting for them again – though there’s `dialogue’ mentioned, perhaps that could change. Somehow I doubt that, but we’ll see.

Anyway – James gets straight into the Take the Flour Back protest. Natalie’s first thoughts (14'):

My first degree is agricultural science, so that's where I come to from this. I think that GM crops and the release of GM crops into the environment is the wrong way to go because the fact is GM crops as currently instituted represent a further expansion of industrial agriculture, enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in, in terms of the future of farming that we need.

I have a particular obsession with soils, and we're utterly trashing the planet's soils. Soils are absolutely critical and essential and we barely understand what's going on with them. We can't replace them easily, and huge industrial scale agriculture that's just ploughing across the landscape in huge fields that relies on a very small handful of seed companies who don't allow farmers to save their own seeds - it's entirely the wrong model of agriculture. So GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go. // And there are safety concerns in terms of the risk factors - what you could be releasing without really understanding what you're doing.

Asked about the Rothamsted trial in specific (15'30''), James points out that you can oppose corporate control of the food system and support GM. Natalie skipped straight past that:

The nature of that experiment was, you were letting loose something into the environment. There'd been experiments in greenhouses that no-one had a problem with, but it's a genie that once you let it out of the bottle, it's out there. I know the scientists were claiming there was a very very tiny chance of cross-contamination, but actually there were some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying. And there simply wasn't the evidence that this was necessary or pointing us in a direction that was useful.

Asked the specific question (16'15''): "would you align yourself with Take the Flour Back? If they had succeeded in smashing the experiment up, do you think they were doing the right thing?"


Nice and clear. James also read out an email question from ‘a Rothamsted scientist’ specifically for her (16'25''):

Agriculture uses land, energy and other natural resources. With increasing demand for food and other agricultural products, its environmental impact will increase. To avoid this, improved crops that give better yield using fewer resources like pesticides, fertiliser and water can help. How can the Greens and GM science folks find a way to dialogue so that a case-by-case applications of GM could be evaluated for environmental benefits?

Natalie's answer:

I'd certainly be very happy to talk to them and I think I've got the foundation so that we can talk the same language, and I'm always happy to talk to scientists and people of good will who are coming from a place where they want to solve the sort of problems he's talking about. What I'd say is, plant breeding is terribly important, but there's also issues of the way you manage the land, the way you ensure you haven't got soil erosion - huge numbers of issues that simply aren't being tackled. And that focus simply on plant breeding comes from a very strong commercial focus.

So. The first thing that leapt out at me was her getting straight in there with her scientific credentials: coming at from an agri science background, she claims to be not just your average crop-trashing reactionary. It also gives her, she says, a common scientific language to talk to Rothamsted with. On Rothamsted’s arguments about contamination (e.g. in their Q&A), she references “some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying". That’s something to follow up: no-one expects actual references in an interview, but I wonder what she’s talking about? At any rate, again, she’s keen to present herself as an agricultural scientist who accepts the validity of peer review. I wonder where these papers will turn out to be directly relevant to the Rothamsted trial, or the same contamination arguments you can see on Take the Flour Back’s own website? (Also, I wonder how many orders of magnitude she has in mind?)

Specific question for Natalie then: what peer-reviewed papers are you referring to when you claim Rothamsted are wrong about the contamination risk by `orders of magnitude?’

This illustrates a point that climate 'skepticism' also shows very clearly: you'll rarely hear people say, "I think x, but there's absolutely no scientific basis for it. I just happen to think that." Science is like motherhood and apple pie in that respect. But doing as Natalie has done here - say "I am scientifically literate" - doesn't make you scientifically literate. She clearly thinks its important, getting straight in there with "I have a science background, so..." But how does she do on her substantive science knowledge? And, actually, can we prise the science from the politics on this one? I'd argue yes, but...

There’s also a murky confusion here that was present in a reply I got from Caroline Lucas too (haven’t checked if I can use any of that publicly yet): there are x, y problems with GM or the corporate food system ; therefore I support trashing the experiment. It’s weak and unreasonable. I’ve said before, I fully support the need for direct action, but – as with James Hansen (and notice that wasn’t even destructive of property) – you need to be putting a helluva lot more work into your reasoning than any of the Rothamsted attackers or attack-supporters have mustered. It’s perhaps what I find most annoying about Green Party members supporting the destruction of the crop: you’re making arguments about problems with the global food system. How did you get from there to “let’s trash their experiment?" (This was roughly Caroline Lucas’ take as well: here are x,y arguments about the food system. Also, direct action has a valid place in a democratic society. None of which I disagree with.)

The key argument, though, is one that many of us have headbutted repeatedly: “GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go." Her whole argument pivots on that – but is it true? The point me and Sue made says no – any more than computer code is tied up with entirely the wrong model of computing. Obviously, code is dominated by corporate players – we live in a largely capitalist world. Does that mean we should attack all coders, open source as well? The coding I’m doing at the moment is to help understand the economic impact of energy cost changes. Am I microsoft? Am I Apple? No. Obviously. This isn’t a difficult point, is it?

Equally, does the existence of Monsanto mean we should attack all GM? Right now, Natalie appears to say, unequivocally, “yes". She has, however, said she’ll talk to Rothamsted and other scientists, and that’s something I’d love to see happen. Take The Flour Back notoriously refused to openly debate the scientists. If the Green Party takes a different approach, perhaps something will come of it. We all have a network of ideas and unquestioned assumptions and they don’t change if they’re not challenged. Ben Goldacre nailed this one perfectly (and of course this applies to me as much as anyone else):

People make mistakes. What distinguishes you from the morons is what you do when the mistakes get pointed out.

She attacks the focus on plant breeding also: it ‘comes from a very strong commercial focus’ that, she believes, neglects other agricultural issues. My first thought on hearing that was: ‘as if good yields were only a capitalist concern’. There are, of course, complex issues of access to food and the way in which scale and profit-making may effect the structure of food production – but we need to remember how many mouths there are to feed, and that the need for scale isn’t going away. I think the approach people like Natalie want is what economic geographers would call `Jacobs externalities’ – a rather bland and mathematical description of the fact that certain kinds of localised production networks can produce more than the sum of their parts. That is true, they can. But they’re not the only way to be more productive, and Jane Jacobs fully recognised the vital role that standard, boring economies of scale can play. It’s an interesting abstract question whether those different kinds of scale outcomes must be at odds with each other – I would argue not. But at any rate, this ‘small is beautiful, big is evil’ heuristic is not going to help us understand how to progress.

The same applies to GM and many, many other things we need to try and keep our minds open about. So much has to change, and so rapidly, our body politic needs to be developing a much stronger ability to properly assess all options. We don’t seem to be showing much sign of doing that – possibly the reverse, in fact. Trite arguments about corporations and “GM is further expansion of enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in" = major fail. We need to start by understanding GM as one technology among many, including (some links here) the history of mutagenesis and the way we’ve historically introduced plant species into different ecosystems. (Some more of my starting questions here, the first two being the most relevant; no closer to answering them, perhaps.)

Just to finish, Natalie does categorically say (following all the Jeremy Hunt kerfuffle) that homeopathy is 'a scientific nonsense' that only ever works because of the placebo effect. However, she then goes on to say that, actually, that effect gives it a place in publicly funded medicine, if all other approaches haven't worked and someone might actually benefit if that person "believes in it and trusts in it and, because of the placebo effect, it works... psychology is part of medicine".

Which is actually close to Jeremy Hunt's own take (see the link above): if you're focused on patient outcomes and - as she says, you've ruled out all other serious medical conditions with known effective treatments - a placebo might give you value for money. Interestingly, I'm having difficulty finding a flaw with that. Also, it implies that people saying “Jeremy Hunt believes in magic water" are wrong – at least going by his ‘patient centring is the point’ argument. To deny someone an approach that might help them because you want to wrestle their comforting illusions off them and cuff them round the ear might make you feel intellectually superior. But if that leaves them medically worse off, what's actually been achieved?

The answer might be - as James goes on to say in the podcast - that you've reinforced the message that evidence doesn't matter in health outcomes. But of course the evidence also shows this placebo approach can work for some, so it isn't quite as clear cut as that. It's annoyingly murky, not sure what to think.

However! To end on an emphatic note: dialogue between Green Party / anti-GM / scientists = yes, let’s see that happen please. And someone please record the outcome. It needs to be ongoing, not just debating-society point-scoring nonsense. The issues are hard, and changing one’s own assumptions is not always an easy or speedy process.

Look to yourself

Don’t look back or up; look inside yourself, where your own cunning, will and power - all the tools that life’s improvement may require - reside. (Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity p.30)

Krugman's piece on empowerment today bought that quote back to mind again from over ten years back. Events in the past couple of years have given it a new resonance, but it was Krugman's obvious point about medical care that leapt out:

If you’ve ever been in this situation you’ll understand what I mean by saying that empowering seniors to 'control their personal healthcare decisions' is very definitely not what you want right then.

I've had a related experience trying to organise home care for a family member. They were, in theory, 'empowered' with a budget to spend on that care. Of course, because they needed care, they weren't actually able to seek out their own care. You'd think that would be pretty obvious, wouldn't you? As it happened, I couldn't find any care providers with free availability. In the end, a separate process found a company I'd not come across. That happened once a professional social care worker who knew the system got involved.

Like so many things the current UK government are pushing further, that was all New Labour policy to begin with. There are such obviously sound economic reasons for having decent support structures rather than 'empowerment', mostly to do with boring information and transaction costs (which very drily sums up what's wrong with the situations above - there are costs that the idea of 'empowerment' ignores - a quite wilful ignorance, perhaps).

It would be a fine thing if those of us who want such support structures and were willing to contribute to them could separate from those who don't. I am happy to pay more tax to hand over a whole set of cost issues I would rather someone else organised. I would also rather that happened in a way that supported the obviously better-value options like state-led health (or some other non-state option that recognised the stupidity of purely insurance-based health care.) Perhaps there are good libertarian ideas that allow precisely this - after all, presumably, nothing would stop mutual societies being set up. But the difference between opt-in and opt-out rates for these kind of things makes the legislative route seem a helluva lot more straightforward.

One thought that occurred to me recently: in the US, large companies often provide health options as part of the job. As a whole, I think costs would be lower if healthcare was state-run, since in the US as elsewhere, most of the economy's activity comes from SMEs unable to offer such benefits, not the larger firms offering that kind of cover. It would thus make for a more stable workforce. But it's a picture of a very different political setup: fight your way into one of the corporate fiefdoms and healthcare will be provided for you and your family - but only if you remain loyal to the company. You can live inside those walls or, if you are not talented or hard-working enough (and thus it's entirely your own fault), you can scratch a living in the maquiladoras hunched up against them.

I'm sure that's a stoned vision of corporate sovereignty I grew out of 15 years ago, didn't I? But then, looking at what's happening here, in the US, in Europe, New Zealand, elsewhere, I'm not so sure.

World Wide What???

This is a nifty example of how reality works on the interweb. I saw the poster on facebook and, like many others, for a moment thought, 'well, that's the sun all over, innit?' However, I've been gotcha'd too often by the Guardian's April 1st stories. They generally aim for a core of plausible, while tweaking the average Guardianista's sandal-wearing liberal nipples in just the right way. More than once, April 1st has seen me having a foaming rant, before eventually realisation hits, followed closely by acute embarrassment and sitting in a corner sulking at my own stupidity. (Chris Martin openly supporting David Cameron seemed particularly likely, I recall.)

It occurs to me, though, there's a parallel to how `markets' are talked about. To paraphrase Obi Wan, `market forces are are an energy field created by all living things. They surround us and penetrate us. They bind the galaxy together.' Which is to say, they're a mystical nonsense prayed to daily by people who believe in the confidence fairy. It's cargo cult gibberish. It's like turning up to some vital, knife-edge diplomatic negotiation teetering on the edge of war, cracking open a beer and saying, `chill - language will save us.'

Similar claims are made of the interwebs, and they're wrong for the same reason. There's nothing intrinsic to its structure that will produce truthiness or optimal outcomes. It can be used as a platform for doing that - but only if you actually develop tools to achieve specific aims. A trivial but suggestive example: guitar tab. The net's full of the stuff, and there are many sites with tabs for specific songs. But the vast majority of the time, they turn out to be precisely the same. That's not because they're correct, it's because the first person to dump it on the web got copied and recopied. No effective mechanism exists for improving the accuracy of particular songs. An echo-chamber is the unsurprising result, despite the fact that the net should be the perfect vehicle for some form of guitartab wikipedia. The machinery for that hasn't been built, though.

There are projects attempting to get meta on the net's inability to manage `peer review' effectively, like That's got to be on the right track if there's no magic force that can do it for us. And the same applies to markets: effective ones are quite specific structures. Often cobbled together haphazardly, they can nevertheless be tweaked and developed for specific purposes, even though - just as with good code development - you'd best stay away from attempting all-encompassing gargantuan rebuild projects (compare the approach of NHS hack day to CSC's work on NHS records).

There's so much more to write about truthiness in the wake of current Republican goings-on, all the Assange gubbins and the ongoing mismatch between the physical and political reality of climate change... another time.

Total perspective vortex

Jonathan Jones has been staring at Mars (through the eyes of Curiosity) and getting a sinking feeling about Earth. I'm guessing he probably didn't write that daft headline. Mars has, still, given him a total perspective vortex moment:

Mars is a beautiful place, as this picture shows, but it is majestically dead. The universe appears to be full of places like that. What no one has so far found much trace of is a place like this: a planet that jumps with life. Earth is a miracle, quite possibly the greatest miracle in the entire cosmos. It is now proven beyond any reasonable doubt that we are playing dangerously with the very fabric of that miracle, endangering the biological balances of our amazing world. Endangering ourselves. In this picture we look on a dead world. Do those silent strata reveal the Martian past, or our future?

Commenters have been picking up on the factual accuracy of that last point, but that isn't what he's saying, I don't think. It's a specific sense of incredulity mixed with, maybe, a suspicion that this must surely all be a VR computer game simulation. There's a lot of it about at the moment as everyone wonders what possible curve the gradient of arctic sea ice extent is going to describe, given where it's pointing right now.

Curiosity's insane landing (still gives me goosebumps, that video) offered a vicarious sense of achievement: we did that! Humans, that is. I am technically of the same species as Jazz musician turned rocket scientist Adam Steltzner. I've been using every new pic sent back as my desktop like I'm about five. It's just mindblowing. This image of an open plain stretching to distant mountains is still my favourite - I can imagine setting off towards them, exactly as Curiosity is planned to.

But give it a hundred years, how will we see Curiosity? She'll still be sat there - likely long dead from wear and tear and the Martian weather despite her nuclear battery. Still, that human-made metal, wire, heatpump, code will be on the Martian surface for thousands of years. If she could look back to Earth in a hundred or two hundred, what would she see?

As Jones says, `Earth is a miracle, quite possibly the greatest miracle in the entire cosmos.' That miracle will still be seething with life; it's weathered plenty of extinction events as it will the latest one. But is there going to be any place for a species capable of putting robots on Mars? Are we capable of the seemingly impossible, stopping ourselves from unravelling the web of our civilisation?

Hmm. I appear to be developing a habit of going off on Jeremiads. I'll attempt to get some actual content into upcoming posts...

What’s the difference between a boxplot and an x-ray? Visualisation and Processing

A repost of my first blog entry on the Talisman blog, trying harder to understand visualisation and communication.
This article is the first of a few I hope to write about visualisation and Processing, a graphics tool created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas back in 2001. In this one I'll introduce Processing and get into some hard-core navel-gazing about visualisation. Next time I'll look at ways to use the Processing library as part of larger Java projects, where I'll assume some knowledge of Java and the Netbeans IDE. We can then move on to some fruitful combination of coding and chin-stroking. I'll also be attending the Guardian's data visualisation masterclass and will report back.

Communication and visualisation in research is both absolutely essential and mired in misunderstanding. It's essential, of course: all research needs to communicate its findings. Ideally, we want that communication to be effective. In some fields, communication is not only vital but fraught: the science of climate change faces concerted attempts to distort its output, and some wonder whether researchers are the best people to deal with this.

So what works? And, maybe more importantly, what doesn't work - and why not? The misunderstanding is perhaps quite simple: we think all images are equal. They enter the eye the same for everyone, don't they? Well, no. This post looks at some of these complexities by talking about four different static images: an x-ray, a box-plot, a mind-map and a simple graphic from the Guardian.

Cutting through the branch we're standing on

I didn't think this sort of thing happened in real life: an old friend of the family (who I haven't seen in many years and am banking on not reading this blog!) seriously injured his neck recently. He was up a tree, chainsawing branches - and chainsawed through the one he was standing on. Picture the moment where, as inexorable gravity took hold, he realised what he'd done.

We're doing exactly the same to the planet. See, I bet you saw that coming huh? An amusing little story twisted into a trite greenie parable. Well fuck you too. Here's another analysis showing how many different ways in which we're cutting through the branch we're standing on. But we're showing no sign of changing our behaviour. Obama's going pro-coal where it's a vote winner - and understandably enough, given the amount of jobs tied up in it. The Spanish coal mining strikes against subsidy cuts show the same thing. I'm not saying it's easily solved. But we're still cutting through the branch we're standing on.

General noises from the UK government sound like this: "going green is all very well, but not during a recession - we have to get our priorities straight." Upon attempting to alert the guy in the tree that he's cutting through the branch he's standing on, he shouts back, "that's all very well, but I can't stop now - I'm about to run out of fuel!" That's the logic we're dealing with. It's wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.

As many of the previous P3 comments I've reposted here hint at, I'm not enamoured with the usefulness of declaring that we have to end growth. I think discussion of growth directly is probably a distraction - something that would take care of itself if we got the other things right. (Micro-thought-experiment: what would having a net zero growth target actually achieve?) But we're not even marginally addressing the scale of the problem, not even planning for the fact that we're not addressing it. Hansen's recent work on the shift in temperature distribution nails the problem: extremes are slowly becoming the new normal, and we're pushing that harder and harder as we continue to actually increase the yearly rate of emissions output. Genius!

It's a perfect storm of a problem and, as I've been wibbling about, having a go at climate skeptics is a complete cop-out. Einstein's quoted as saying (h/t MT): "I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy." Arguing forever with people who think the concept of 'planet' is a deep-green-commie conspiracy, that the greenhouse effect is open to democratic vote, that people like me are just seeking rent from the st... (OK, that one's true. Shh, don't tell.) Anyway, yes: pointless and easy and we should have little patience with ourselves if we get too distracted by it - the hard problems are elsewhere. It's the vast majority of people worrying about it but (as the climate change idiots article says) just getting on with our lives. It's the businesses and policymakers and the fact that politics doesn't stop functioning the way it does just because we're driving its underlying operating system to burn-out.

The most complex of these is just so far beyond where we're currently at that, at the moment, I think it rules us out of the picture: long-term climate stability is going to require net-zero carbon, including a series of carbon sinks and any number of possible carbon sink technologies. How could we possibly achieve that on a global scale? It would appear to require a kind of global cybernetic equilibria. I mean, hmm - that doesn't seem very likely does it? It makes building the Roman Empire seem like assembling a Wendy House. I reckon we'll get to plain ol' Gaia feedbacks of the type described in the tipping point article above before we're anywhere near systems for managing our own feedbacks.

Getting ahead of ourselves a bit there. Need to start by keeping the carbon in the ground. Need to stop cutting through the branch we're standing on.

Oh good, another P3 short essay on economic models

Well, as long as it keeps on tricking me into writing shit down, I'll keep on unashamedly writing stupidly long comments no-one in their right mind would wade through and posting them here. Makes me feel like I'm keeping busy! That said, in a zero-sum world where I could be writing papers or blathering on blogs, I wonder which I should be doing...?

We've got into discussions on P3 before, here and here, though not really coming to any conclusions. But you'll see we've picked up on a fair few things you've mentioned - one of my bugbears being the misuse of Friedman's 'F-twist' argument, claiming he says "unrealistic assumptions don't matter" (something I also repeated until, looking for ways to think about model-building, I actually read what Friedman said, which is subtly but vitally different to the caricature so often used to paint economists as naive Vulcan-like imbeciles.) A lot of that's come from my (still not quite finished!) thesis work; I've stuck the current version of the navel-gazing model chapter here. There's a lot of overlap, even many of the same quotes, with things your blog's discussing.

The most recent article of yours shares some of the same view of modelling in general. I'm not sure whether this eco-economics attack on modelling stems from quite the same source as MT's skepticism, would be interested to dig more into that. I think this starts getting close to the heart of this, which again comes down to what we're claiming models are *for* (which I waffle on about interterminably in that thesis chapter.) You quote the Daly/Solow argument (Daly: "If we want a bigger cake, the cook simply stirs faster in a bigger bowl and cooks the empty bowl in a bigger oven that somehow heats itself.") But you don't provide Solow's response; quoting meself quoting Solow:

"Solow's reply to this highlights a recurring argument used to defend the abstract nature of many economic models - critics are taking them too literally, and not considering how the models are used: 'We were trying to think about an interesting and important question: how much of a drag on future growth, or even on the sustainability of current production, might be exercised by the limited availability of natural resources and the inputs they provide? ... The role of theory is to explore what logic and simple assumptions can tell us about what data to look for and how to interpret them in connection with the question asked' (Solow 1997 p.267/8). Solow goes on to point out that the argument should be about how substitutable renewable and non-renewable resources are, given that the former are likely to be highly capital-intensive. (Ibid.) He appears to be saying that his critics have mistaken economists' models for their actual understanding of the world, rather than tools that aid that understanding."

Which is what I was arguing Krugman also says in the comment above, and what Friedman was saying way back in the 50s (though whether Friedman follows his own advice, I'm not qualified to say - I only really know his stuff from his 'essays on positive economics'). E.g.: when assuming s = 1/2gt^2, "under a wide range of circumstances, bodies that fall in the atmosphere behave *as if* they were falling in a vacuum. In the language so common in economics this would be rapidly translated into: the formula assumes a vacuum. Yet it clearly does no such thing."

And of course there are plenty of circumstances where it would be a completely inappropriate way to think about falling objects. But that doesn't make using it 'naive' or invalid, any more than using temperature and pressure measurements does (when we know that at atomic reality is more complex).

I haven't got to the bottom of this stuff to my own satisfaction at all. It would be great if we could carry on exploring them here at P3, but I wonder if that might require some kind of agenda!? I wouldn't mind starting with actually working up a common understanding of some economic models as they are. Stephen, it sounds like you have a solid economic background. I don't really; I've gone off and done this by myself while my supervisors looked on horrified, and found it immensely tricky to find economists to check my understanding with (perhaps my own networking failings, I shan't blame economists' closed-shop attitude!)

Some suggested things to discuss: understanding a basic general equilibrium model, how they've been used, how they're related (or not) to the actual policy workhorse DSGE models, what other models inform policy; whether economic training in these models is (as Krugman's own view seems to suggest) more a set of shared heuristics almost incidental to how economists are apprenticed in a policy episteme - so it's not 'about the truth of the models' so much about training and embedding policymakers. Which would mean we could attack the models til the cows come home and we'd be missing the point. You can actually see how that might function in a completely different context: Lansing's work on Balinese rice management, where a shared collective model allows autonomous ritual actions to both re-create the landscape and manage water to maximise crops/minimise pests across the Subaks. There's no 'correct' top-down model, there's a shared social technology tied into a specific landscape, kept alive in people's minds through ritual. Lansing calls it 'sociogenesis': "when Balinese society sees itself reflected in a humanised nature, a natural world transformed by the efforts of previous generations, it sees a pattern of interlocking cycles that mimic these cycles of nature" (priests and programmers p.133). Mainstream economics may partly work the same (esp. ritual!) but on quite a different scale (and of course with the open question of whether it's capable of ending in a cyclical self-maintenance or is instead a global virus; cf. Agent Smith).

It'd be good to explore a recent-history example of an economic model's impact: Krugman's core model again. Since 1991 it's gone from 'thought experiment to lure economists into thinking about geographical questions' (while also radically changing the profession's view of the central dynamics of international trade) to a World Bank report on geography coming straight from it, despite Krugman's own apparent caution on using it - and a continued suspicious lack of empirical support that shouldn't be a surprise given it was only ever meant as a toy model to make a point. (I've never quite understood what Krugman's own view of this is; initially caution and a notable silence as the Nobel prize arrived and some of the key ideas got absorbed by the body politic. But I'm sure he'd have some clear Views on it.)

And to ask the same question again: given all this, what role do we actually think models can / should play in both analysing and organising society? I have a book in front of me by Stan Openshaw, an ex-professor from my department, called "Using models in planning" (1978). A quote:

"Without any formal guidance many planners who use models have developed a view of modelling which is the most convenient to their purpose. When judged against academic standards, the results are often misleading, sometimes fraudulent, and occasionally criminal. However, many academic models and perspectives of modelling when assessed against planning realities are often irrelevant. Many of these problems result from widespread, fundamental misunderstandings as to how models are used and should be used in planning."

While he's writing about town planners, the same applies. We don't really understand how this is meant to work. It happens anyway, but without asking about this, we're stuck in this strange place where one side carry on using their models while others keep on going "ha! look at those stupid assumptions!" - as if by some miracle of alchemy, the models being criticsed will crumble like vampires at dawn. Kuhn's stuff makes clear it doesn't even quite work like that in the physical sciences: the relationship between discovering problems, errors, better models and the structure of a discipline is way more complex. If that discipline is then tangled into political power, there's a whole other bunch of stuff going on...

Global Warming Policy Foundation graph in context

A while back I worked on a time series interaction tool for messing about with climate data. (It's a java applet, so you'll need java installed in your browser to see it; should look something like the pic in this post.) It isn't quite there - the keyboard controls (see 'controls' tab in link above) are clunky and unintuitive, it needs more direct click-and-drag.

But I thought I'd just share one fun part of it. First-off, here's the global warming policy foundation's front page. Note the top-left graphic (and here's a perma-copy in case they change it.)

Now, in the time series visualisation, click the 'GWPF' tab - you should see the first pic in this post. The tab's instructions provide you with links to see how the GWPF's graphic fits in with the dataset they're using (hadcrut3vgl, confirmed through email) - you can toggle between their graphic and the full dataset with the 'click here to toggle' link (or click on the graphic itself and use 'q' to toggle the view).

So does the 'story' they're telling with the graph hold out? Well, they don't say what that story is directly, of course - but it's implicit in the orange line at 14.5 degrees. An email from the GWPF confirmed it has 'no particular function' but emphasises that there's been an apparent 'warming standstill' since 2000.

In context of the whole dataset, that selection immediately looks rather odd, though, doesn't it? The eleven years of this century sit high, for the obvious reason that -

"including 2011, all eleven years of the 21st century so far (2001-2011) rank among the 13 warmest in the 132-year period of record. Only one year during the 20th century, 1998, was warmer than 2011"

Clicking the second link in the visualisation (to find the overall OLS trend) gives that some more context. The GWPF graph looks at 11 years. If you look at 11 year trends over the whole dataset, they go against the full trend 34.2% of the time - in just over one in three years. One of these covers the GWPF's data selection. Is there a 'warming standstill' every time that happens?

The answer depends on what we know about the physical system, and what the forcings are. This is a point I was trying to make with the first two tabs (the cell 1 and 2) using daily temperature data from York University Electronic Department's weather station archive. Skipping to 'the cell (2)', you can do the same thing (alt + vertical drag) to get an intuitive sense of where the seasonal 'signal' appears out of the noise: it shows both the OLS trendlines starting from each datapoint, and points showing the polarity of the trendlines (the 'smoother'). Dragging will get you from apparently random day-to-day noise to the seasonal temperature curve. The size of the trend width appears on the top bar.

This sort of kinetic understanding is something I find useful for myself: seeing that an ordinary least squares calculation can clearly pick out the seasonal signal at the right trend, and seeing how going under or over a certain value either moves towards noise or towards a less clear seasonal pattern (until at the extreme, a single trendline appears to have a positive slope over four years of York data... )

Compare that to the GWPF approach: you get a very clear season 'signal' at about 180 days (to eyeball - this is not robust of course!) At that width, you get counter-trends happening at about 34% if they're 22 days long. (Use the large trend for 180 day width and the small trend, CRTL+drag, for the 22 days. Small counter to large % appears top-right.)

So by the GWPF's logic, would it be 'season standstill' every time a 22 day stretch went against the seasonal trend? No, of course not. This is a point made many times by others (most amusingly by The mysterious correlation between amount of sunshine falling in York and the average temperature is no mystery at all: the regional climate is being 'forced' by the sun's energy. Regional seasons are a quite complex process (e.g. the sun's energy arrives in pulses as the Earth spins every day), yet we get this extremely regular aggregate property: a clear temperature sine-wave over the year.

Co2 forcing is in some ways even more straightforward: more energy will continue to enter the atmosphere as long as we carry on adding the stuff - and then for some good while afterwards. Quite how long depends on what other processes come into play. That's the really fun stuff, and the most uncertain. But the link between energy imbalance, re-equilibriating and temperature change is as robust as the seasons.

Using too short a trend is meaningless. Making strong claims about standstill based on too short a trend is ignorant, wilfully or otherwise.

Any views on whether the viz tool works or not gratefully received. As I say, better controls = No 1 thing to do.

P3 comment: money as a useful illusion (and not really an illusion).

Another comment at P3 for this article, reposted...
"Money is something of a shared delusion which we continue to share because of its utility... What was missing was 'credit', but that is simply an artifact of the game, not a real thing."

I took from your point, MT, that money is dangerous *because* a (delusionary) social construct. But it's only a shared delusion in the same way that language is - which is to say, so essential to us as a species that it can't really be considered delusional. A manifestation of that like money may be dangerously abstracted, but real as anything else we create with language structures.

There's an almost infinite space of ways in which we can collectively manage resources. Language and symbol (including money) are like a flock in that space. The elements have to be in close relation to each other, as it's their inter-relations that define them - the separate elements mean/do nothing in isolation. (I have some vague memory of this being a Wittgenstein point about language.)

But money is abstract compared to other structures we use (I've wiffled before about specific examples like Balinese rice management analysed by Lansing and Kremer in Priests and Programmers and Perfect Order, or van der Ploeg's work on Andean potato cultivation, which you can read in the Google book of 'Seeing like a State' here - only a few pages, but Scott does a great summary).

There's a parallel in Milgram's work on obedience to authority:

"While structures of authority are of necessity present in all societies, advanced or primitive, modern society has the added characteristic of teaching individuals to respond to impersonal authorities. Wherea submission to authority is probably no less for an ashanti than for an American factory worker, the range of persons who constitute authorities for the native are all personally known to him, while the modern industrial world forces individuals to submit to impersonal authorities, so that responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title." (p.137).

I don't think this means abstract resource management systems (like money) should necessarily be 're-embedded', though there are plenty of people who do (e.g. this on reputation currencies. Blech.) But - to take a specific example - if you think the future is likely to include computers, we'd be hard pushed to come up with anything better than money for organising their development & construction. Even a single component like a hard drive has production and design spread across a number of countries. If you could map the computer you're using now into money and information exchanges, how far would the network go, how many connections would there be? What else could achieve that?

The financial system's sort of combined a metastasised cancer with a worm-hole into another universe, where it grew uncontrollably and parasitised its useful social function. It shouldn't be beyond our wit to fix that.

Perhaps the oil question is actually relatively easier. Maybe no market mechanism (or other complex resource management structure) can deal with it. Perhaps it's simply a case of slowly making everyone realise it has to stay where it is, and declaring its extraction off-limits - as we do in National Parks now (though in how many places is that being reversed?) The message is at least very simple: we either keep it where it is, or we set up the conditions for unthreading civilisation. The question then becomes about how best to communicate that message? I can't help but think, however much I enjoy my ergonomic on-screen pontificating, this is going to require direct action. Think about how much difference the occupy movement made to the conversation about inequality. A liveable climate is more important than this.

Agent-based navel gazing: thesis ch.4

I've been giving copies of thesis chapters to people, but I haven't written about them properly here or got anything published yet. (Or indeed finished the corrections yet...) My unpleasant inner IP-protector is demanding some record I actually wrote it. So, chapter 4 attached: model-navel-gazing a-go-go. Apologies for lack of attached bibliograpy.

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