It's interesting that blog-writing was meant to be a way to relax a bit, get ideas down. It's somehow got all tensed up, and I keep on finding myself accidentally writing in comments elsewhere. This one's a quick defence of the idea of utility. At some point I'll explain in more detail the several, tiered stages I went through before I ended up seeing how the standard micro-economics framework is in fact really useful. That's quite a shift, since before I'd completely bought the common sociological (and ABM) criticism of utility as clearly false, because unrealistic. But here's a start. Oh - and having tried many books, here's the best one I found for learning micro-economics basics if, like me, you've been attempting that outside of an economics course. It assumes only calculus basics and the writing is incredibly clear-minded. Anyway, from a comment on an ongoing P3 thread:
I started my PhD listening to a lot of agent modellers promising the moon on a stick. Realistic, reactive, built on plausible psychology blah. I’ve ended it completely seeing what the idea of utility is good for. It’s not meant to be a ‘realistic’ take on human psychology, it’s a neutral framework for thinking through how cost changes shift people’s responses. E.g. the fairly unremarkable fact that people will tend to cut back on other spending first as fuel costs increase can be described in terms of elasticities. It’s tautological, but then all theories are, by themselves. It doesn’t stop it being very useful: if you know that increasing fuel costs will actually reduce spending in the rest of the economy more than it affects fuel spending, that’s important – not least for working out tax revenues.
It doesn’t explain *why* those choices are being made, and for a lot of purposes it doesn’t need to. It depends on what level of explanation you’re after. Others might want to ask: well, is the inelasticity of fuel prices amenable to change in other ways, if we break it down? What role, for example, does the physical structure of cities have?
Compare to another of my favourite utility-based findings: “savings in walking and waiting times are valued at between two and three times savings in on-vehicle time – parameters that have proved to be remarkably robust over the years.” (Button, Transport Economics, p.104)
So: more people will be – for instance – willing to drive for an hour each way to work, when they would never consider walking for that amount of time. Of course, one can come up with many theories to explain the underlying facts: anything from the structure of towns/cities/transport design to people’s (relative) aversion to physical exercise (I commute about an hour each way, with some walking. I’m fairly fit, I run, but I’m not sure I’d want to walk to work for 2 hours a day…!) But *at a given level of explanation* it is very useful to know that people value transport time differently for different modes.
So taking that simple example: if it appears that people will only walk or cycle for much shorter time stretches than under power, what can you do with that info? Several possible things. Find out the impact of physical/urban structure. Try and pull out the underlying factors affecting people’s choices, separate from those structures. If you want to reduce carbon output, you could either berate people for being so weak and tell them they should drive less – or perhaps think about other ways behaviour might be amenable to change, given what we know about how people react to those changes.
I’m not saying utility is the only way to think about people’s choices, and certainly not that it’s a description of the way people “really are”. But it seems to be clearly a useful tool for thinking about cost change, either monetary, time or some other cost imposed by our environment.
And just going back to the ‘level of explanation’ thing: “I have not been able to discover the causes of those properties… and I frame no hypothesis”. That’s Newton on gravity. He came up with what’s probably the first exemplar of a scientifically robust, generalised theory, but understood that deeper levels of explanation awaited. We’re still working on that.
I think physicists actually have less of a problem with this difference between levels of explanation than economists, who tend to assume that whole collections of people act like a single person (the ‘representative agent’ idea). But we have to get comfortable with what level of explanation we’re talking about. People are not utility-maximisers. Utility is useful for thinking about, describing and even predicting what impact people’s reaction to cost changes will have. What’s the problem? Pinning utility onto rationality is not necessary – any more than the theory of gravity requires planets to love each other.
The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.
I think Heartland just became the new Monckton: if they didn't exist, we'd need to invent them.
These people are proposing to destroy a GM crop in the UK at the end of this month. As with Greenpeace's destruction of an Australian GM crop last year, this is a travesty, and damaging to the integrity of the UK's environmental movement. They're planning this action based on the flimsiest of unchecked facts - including the 'cow gene' theme of their website.
The scientists in question (see the video) have made clear they're happy to talk to them. The protestors have responded with: "We are really pleased they want to engage in a discussion. But we know that talking to them is not going to change their minds. They've declared their position because they have already put the plants in the ground." Uh huh.
Here's more on Rothamsted Research and their climate/sustainability aims.
This also supports a pet theory of mine: scientific ignorance is spread across the political spectrum. Climate denialism may be more right-wing, but that's got nothing to do with rightwingers being generally less scientifically literate, despite what various daft analyses have recently been (massively counterproductively) saying. (Hey! How best to alienate a whole chunk of the political compass!) Many instinctive free-market supporters will back GM the same way these GM-attackers instinctively buy in to climate change, without necessarily comprehending the science: their worldview provides shortcut heuristics.
My partner works on biofuels, and is about to start on a project looking at enzymes in composting and whether they can be isolated/put to use in speeding/increasing efficiency of the digestion process. There are so many fantastic scientists working hard to get us through the next 50/100 years - how can we get through to people like 'taketheflourback' that they're being counterproductive?
A one-para summary of my own view of GM: just another crop optimisation tool, no different to what potato farmers in the Andes were doing thousands of years ago. But like any tool, depends on who's using it for what. We need to support *public* funding of crop projects like this (and encourage effective private investment of benefit to all end-users) not confuse "GM" with "Monsanto".
MT is provoking me into defending economics, which is a fact I'll have to reflect on at some point. Comments over there, but as I seem to be continuing to accidentally write down stuff from the PhD, I'll post some of it here too. Latest:
It's good to read some provoking ideas, MT, but - again - it would be nice to see some evidence to back up your arguments. You're not wrong about a lot of things but I don't think you're right either. I'm not in any great position of expertise, mind, but the bullet points feel a little like watching a jazz band fall down the stairs.
"economics distinguishes itself by a massive and systematic aversion to data." Do you follow Krugman's blog? Have you seen his massive and systematic reference to data? Each time, repeatedly pointing out that it clearly supports well-established macro-economic principles, not actions currently being taken in Washington and Europe? I presume you're making a point about economic modelling methods and how they're used?
"There are simple arguments based on plausible assumptions within economics that purport to show that any regulation is a net cost. If these arguments were correct it would be possible to get places faster if the government didn’t intervene to tell you what side of the road to drive on. This conclusion is obviously false. Consequently the plausible assumptions cannot all be correct."
Who makes these arguments? Largely (though not exclusively) a small set of economists-for-hire, buyable from the same dealers who will provide you with some top-notch, well-oiled climate FUD. There's a small overlap with Krugman's Very Serious People, particularly the ones peddling 'nasty medicine' solutions to our current economic woes.
Just caught myself off-guard and spewed on economic modelling at P3. Accidental blog entry!
"Does the absence of a workable model refute a hypothesis?" As usual, Krugman's my favourite on this. Particularly from section 'the evolution of ignorance' where he compares theory-making to early map-making. Early maps were more report-based but, as they slowly became filled in, that heuristic knowledge was lost.
"There was an extended period in which improved technique actually led to some loss in knowledge. Between the 1940s and the 1970s something similar happened to economics. A rise in the standards of rigor and logic led to a much improved level of understanding of some things, but also led for a time to an unwillingness to confront those areas the new technical rigor could not yet reach. Areas of inquiry that had been filled in, however imperfectly, became blanks. Only gradually, over an extended period, did these dark regions get re-explored."
Krugman got his Nobel prize for his work on geographical economics (the 'new economic geography'). Here he is (pdf) reflecting on that. His express purpose in creating his 'simple' core-periphery model was to show economists that geography mattered (as well as that you didn't need comparative advantage to make it work, so some places could become the core through endogenous forces alone). But the bait he used to lure neoclassical economists out of their dimensionless 'wonderland' was a model able to preserve general equilibrium.
"As a professor of rhetoric, I necessarily became a student of narcissism, which for simplicity’s sake I define as not knowing where your boundaries end and the rest of the world begins." (Guy McPherson via desdemonadespair)
Trying to blog at the minute feels very much like I'm in an imaginary room watching nameless faces wobble on a knife-edge between polite concern and genuine horror, as a needling worry tries to get my attention: am I naked from the waist down? Do I have my pants on my head? What am I saying? I hold off, waiting for some surety that I'll say something sensible... I end up writing nonsense like this. Why? Why here? What's the benefit of that imaginary audience and their wobbly faces? Is it just the virtual equivalent of hanging around in parks with your goolies hanging out, hoping someone's going to look over? As the quote above suggests, it's a peculiar sort of solipsism.
I've always thought it was simply that you have to adopt a different writing style to accommodate the possibility - however slim - that the Internets might come and read you. That forces a little more thought about structure and flow. But having taken an extended break from twitface, and now to be trying facebook again, I'm not so sure. Some peope know they have an audience, and that must help define what they're doing in their own mind. After all, the feedback is real, not merely a projected hallucination. But there must, of course, be something intrinsically narcissistic about the enterprise: each entry reaffirms a desire, however obscured by rationalisations, to be observed. Otherwise, why not just keep a journal?
It's obviously daft, though, to say any form of communication is narcissistic, any more than a schoolkid doing their homework makes them so. What I like about the above quote, though, is that it seems to capture something of the role of imagination in online communication. As I say, it's been weird returning to Facebook and moving again from being deeply suspicious to letting it back in the veins again. (Sociology alert: that's Bauman's synopticon right there. We demand to be watched, and our most private utterances only take on meaning with a viewing public, even if that public exists only in our own mind.) With facebook, that's not to say there's no genuine social element to it, but it's only in taking an extended break from it - and then relearning the weird urge to post - that I can sense the little high it provides, the (cod-psychology alert) micro-dose of oxytocin from rubbing up against the leg of virtual sociability. The number of people that actually take part, compared to the nominal quantity of facebook friends anyone has, is a hint of that.
So it's slightly the same when blogging; one's mental reactions are real enough, but it's unclear to me what's really going on. It's un-nerving. Spending five years working towards the endpoint of the PhD is obviously a factor in feeling so weird. What the bejeesus happens now? How come it still feels like now, it was six months ago! I have to actually finish it first. The viva is long done, but the corrections are still lurking about. The thing still feels too unfinished to mention; another narcissistic urge to destroy anything lacking some inestimable quality of good enough. Sloping off quietly and pretending nothing happened seems easier somehow. Thanks all the same, good taxpayers...
Being spat out at the end of PhDing can leave one devoid of all porpoise. A bad acid trip that takes a huge hunking bite out of your alloted years; a fairy land at right angles to the rest of time. Hang on - what the hell's going on again? Where am I? How old? What the hell was that all for anyway? So here I am, pants on my head, naked from the waist down and possibly even with pencils up my nose, deciding the way to deal with that is to blog about it. Who knows? Might help. Not a full online career and friendship destroying mental breakdown, but at least something capable of causing a slight sweat-prickle of embarrassment when read a year later. You might delete it but the internet never forgets.
At any rate, this all by way of a little push for myself to pull the plug out of my, um, nostrils and write some shit down, for better or worse. This sort of navel-gazing is even more narcissistic than blogging about something genuinely empirically interesting, of course, but some writing is (possibly) better than none. I don't really want to strangle that while I wait for a decent academic voice to assert itself; think I'll just carry on as normal and hope for the best.
That said, some preparation did go into a separate academic blog: domain registered and everything. I'm just not sure I have the heart to write that "dear coveredinbees" letter, so I reckon I'll hang on here a while longer, see if I can get those topics going. Thank you in advance, imaginary audience, for indulging my half-naked pants-on-head ramblings. Wibble.
Only a free market can bring this kind of change about. We are not going to get this kind of change from interventionist government. Who’s going to advocate for these effective solutions? Do you think Greenpeace is going to advocate for this? Is that what you’re waiting for? Evidently. If free market advocates shirk their responsibility, others will dictate policy. Is that really what you want? When will you stand up and offer solutions? Are you cowards? To recap, in case you missed it: everyone in this room understands climate well enough. It is not worth your time to argue about the third decimal point. Climate is going to change a lot in the next few decades – and policy will be enacted to deal with perceived needs. The political right has been AWOL in proposing solutions to these problems. And the world needs you to be engaged.
"Your God person puts an apple tree in the middle of a garden and says do what you like guys, oh, but don't eat the apple. Surprise surprise, they eat it and he leaps out from behind a bush shouting `Gotcha'. It wouldn't have made any difference if they hadn't eaten it."
"Because if you're dealing with somebody who has the sort of mentality which likes leaving hats on the pavement with bricks under them you know perfectly well they won't give up. They'll get you in the end."
"What are you talking about?"
"Never mind, eat the fruit."
Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the end of the Universe
"... people generally experience a strong motivation to associate themselves meaningfully with groups of 'kindred spirits' to reduce feelings of boredom and loneliness. To cope with and alleviate such feelings of loneliness, people pursue various strategies, including shopping (Rubenstein and Shaver 1980). The desire for human interaction thus may drive some shoppers to stores in which they find salespeople friendly and communicative."
Yue Pan and George M. Zinkhan, “Determinants of retail patronage: A meta-analytical perspective,” Journal of Retailing 82, no. 3 (2006): 229-243. p.231
Was just trying to find out if it's really true that the USA broadcast of Frozen Planet will not include the last episode, 'on thin ice', when I found the Daily Mail apoplectic and red-in-face: "Moving polar bear footage filmed in Germany! Eight million people tuned in! Show sold around the world! BBC denies it misled viewers!!!" That list should really end with "BBC causes mass jowel-shaking incident among the home counties! A-brbrbrbrbrrbbr!"
It's a technique that's been used in previous BBC wildlife programmes, of course, for filming something that would otherwise be next to impossible. Even in this series, I'm guessing they probably didn't have a tiny side-on camera able to follow this vole. (In fact, obviously not, it would have been impossible.) It's probably my natural leaning towards the BBC's liberal commie outlook, but I didn't feel particularly cheated by that. Actually, in both cases above, I thought, 'wow, that must have been a bugger to set up.'
What could possibly have triggered the Mail to turn the jowel-shaker to 11 on this? Might it be anything to do with the great global warming conspiracy, perpetuated by the final episode's blatant presentation of actual, physical evidence? I mean, did you see the number of scientists who are clearly swindling the taxpayer solely so they can fly around the arctic in cool planes looking sexy and rugged?
Polar bears, of course, are pretty much guaranteed to trigger this kind of reaction. Witness the recent suspension and reinstatement of Charles Monnett, following his devious reporting of seeing four dead polar bears.
Backing off slightly from my own buttons being pushed, there's an interesting comparison to the recent Jeremy Clarkson nonsense. Paul Sinha did a good job on the Now Show: however clumsily, Clarkson was actually making a joke about attempts to provide balance, giving both sides of every story. But the meme that escaped was too good to question for many, with some even calling for legal action. Hmm.
Whether the Grauniad or the Mail, pushing your reader's buttons sells papers. It gives them a little addictive high and makes them feel vindicated in their own beliefs. The long hard slog of building a daily, working relationship with the truth is much less exciting.
Update: Discovery have decided to air the climate change episode, it seems.