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Updated: 2018-02-19T00:00:00-05:00


Donald Trump: Energy Crony


During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump vowed repeatedly to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C. Nearly a year into his term, it's clear the president instead intends to flood the bog with energy mandates and subsidies.

In October, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry urged the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to pour funds into conventional coal-fired and nuclear electricity generation plants. Perry argued the government needs to prop up these money losers in order to stabilize the power grid. As R Street Institute energy analyst William Murray points out, this amounts to a "creative" ploy "to fulfill promises made directly by President Donald Trump to coal mine owners during the election campaign, even at the cost of free markets—a supposed core belief among Republicans and conservatives of all stripes."

Why are coal-fired plants being shuttered? A June 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study estimates that the "declining price of natural gas relative to coal, on an energy-adjusted basis, explains 92 percent" of reduced production. Furthermore, Steve Huntoon, a former president of the Energy Bar Association, notes in the trade publication RTO Insider that natural gas power plants are more reliable than coal-fired generators with respect to ensuring grid resilience.

Coal isn't the only energy source favored by the president. During the campaign, he frequently assured Midwestern voters of his support for ethanol mandates. And in November, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt bowed to corn-state senators' demands and approved a final rule that continues the Renewable Fuel Standard, by requiring refiners to blend 19.24 billion gallons of biofuels into the nation's fuel supply in 2018. That mandate is part of the path to blending 36 billion gallons of biofuels into transport fuels by 2022, a target set out in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

The stated purpose of that law is "to increase the production of clean renewable fuels" as a way "to move the United States toward greater energy independence and security." But in the past decade, U.S. domestic oil production has soared from 5 million to 9.4 million barrels per day while the price dropped from $130 to below $60 per barrel.

Meanwhile, the ethanol mandate burns up 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop and spurs farmers to plow an area the size of the entire state of Iowa. In 2016, analysts at Turner, Mason and Co. estimated that this pushed up refinery costs by as much $15 billion. Of course, drivers must pay more at the pump to cover these expenses—even as the prices of gas and oil remain low.

Authoritarians to the Left and Right


The divide between people on either side of the political aisle is now larger than at any point since 1994.

The share of Democrats expressing very unfavorable attitudes toward Republicans grew from 16 percent to 44 percent over that period, according to Pew Research Center. The percentage of Republicans holding very unfavorable views of Democrats rose from 17 percent to 45 percent.

New research in Public Opinion Quarterly identifies what could be a significant factor fueling this rise: Americans' authoritarian tendencies.

Authoritarians are predisposed toward a group-centrism that is grounded in a need for order and certainty. Partisanship, like religion, is a social identity that offers the psychological benefits of tribal membership.

The Colgate University political scientist Matthew Luttig analyzed four sets of survey data that probe respondents on these qualities. His combined results cast doubt on the conventional political science wisdom that Republicans are significantly more prone to authoritarianism than Democrats. To the contrary, he finds that authoritarians "gravitate to both parties' extremes."

In the surveys, authoritarianism is measured via a series of questions about child-rearing beliefs. In essence, they ask which one of a pair of values people see as more important for children: obedience or self-reliance; independence or respect for elders; curiosity or good manners; and being considerate or being well-behaved. Setting aside the issue of whether the questions measure learned cultural dispositions or innate temperament, they do enable researchers to assess the authoritarian values held by respondents. Intensity of partisanship, meanwhile, is measured by asking respondents whether they consider themselves to be "strong" Democrats or Republicans.

Luttig reports that in the 2012 American National Election Studies survey, 13 percent of white Democrats chose the "authoritarian" response to each of the four standard questions, while 19 percent of white Republicans did the same. On both sides, the more authoritarian picks a person made, the higher the probability that he or she would also identify as strongly partisan. (Among Democrats, strong partisanship rose from 34 to 48 percent. Among Republicans, it went from 30 to 49 percent.)

Interestingly, Luttig observes that "some of the strongest members of the Democratic Party are highly authoritarian Whites, individuals typically believed to be members of the White working class." Because many of them are also socially conservative, he speculates that this group may over time decide the GOP "provides a better 'match'" for their values.

Either way, Luttig concludes, "partisan hostility in America today is not entirely rooted in different views of the world, ideological principles, or cultural disagreements." At least part of the problem is people's "powerful but substantively vacuous authoritarian needs to belong."

The Mere Distinction of Colour


A nation that began by declaring that all men were created equal kept, at the same time, more than half a million black people in bondage. "The Mere Distinction of Colour"a moving new exhibit at Montpelier, the home of President James Madisonexplores this unhappy historical paradox as it shows how people who were treated as property lived and worked as families and as a community.

The reconstructed cabins in the South Yard, just a couple of hundred feet from the main house, feature videos where the descendants of the plantation's enslaved community speak vividly about the struggles and triumphs of their ancestors. Owing in part to the numerous gambling debts incurred by his wastrel stepson John Payne Todd, Madison died owing money and did not free any of Montpelier's enslaved people.

The heartrending film Fate in the Balance, screened in the cellar, centers around Ellen Stewart, the 15-year-old daughter of one of Dolley Madison's maids. An actress playing the role of Stewart describes how Dolley sold off members of her family, one by one, to pay Todd's debts.

Madison's former body servantPaul Jennings, who purchased his own freedomhelped Stewart escape on a boat sailing to New Jersey. But the vessel was caught, and Dolley sent Stewart to Baltimore to be sold. Fortunately, an abolitionist campaign raised enough money to buy her freedom.

Visitors should certainly see the main house, but it's the life stories of the enslaved people that will stick with you when you leave.

The Noble, Misguided Plan to Turn Coal Miners Into Coders


Even in coal's heyday, Appalachia was still relatively poor and backward. At the time, policy makers blamed its lack of economic development on mountainous inaccessibility. Their solution: End the region's isolation with massive infrastructure projects, most notably a network of four-lane highways that would connect the region to the rest of the country. So in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act, creating the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). Over the subsequent five decades, ARC has spent $27 billion (in 2015 dollars) to build nearly 3,000 miles of the Appalachian Development Highway System that is threaded throughout the mountains. The highways, constructed along officially designated "Corridors," are splendidly engineered—and largely empty. They utterly failed to spark an economic renaissance. Despite tens of billions in federal money, the "region's performance relative to the national average is similar to its position in the 1960s," reported economists Carl Kitchens and Taylor Jaworski in a 2016 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. They calculate that the gigantic transportation investment boosted incomes in the region by just $586 per capita. Far from being discouraged by this result, policy makers are at it again. This time, they want to drag Appalachia into the 21st century over newly installed information superhighways, known—God help us—as "eCorridors." Here's the plan: First lace the mountains with high-speed broadband fiber-optic networks to connect the region to opportunities in the outside world. Then train unemployed miners in the art of computer coding. The first step aims to generate new jobs by luring companies to the area; the second is supposed to let people stay put and work. I grew up as a hillbilly in central Appalachia, on a dairy farm in Washington County, Virginia. Like many folks, I left to seek an education and better opportunities beyond the confines of the Mountain Empire. I returned for a week in June to cruise the mountainous Corridors and meet with some of the people in Eastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia who are trying to jumpstart a hillbilly tech revolution. But instead of a burgeoning tech sector fed by glorious new fiber-optic cables, I found pure deja vu: Underutilized, debt-saddled infrastructure projects and an ever-growing number of Appalachians being expensively trained for jobs that are unlikely to show up. Hope or Hype? "Silicon Holler: How workforce retraining is bringing tech jobs to Appalachia," blares the headline in TechRepublic. "Can an Appalachian 'Silicon Holler' rise in coal's shadow?" asks Reuters. The Guardian informs us that the fiber-optic cables being built across Kentucky could transform coal country into "a new place on the map the hopeful call 'Silicon Holler.'" The hype began as far back as 1999, with a project launched by Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU), the city agency in charge of providing water, sewer, and electricity services to the 17,000 residents of Bristol, Virginia. That year, the utility proposed and the City Council approved a fiber-optic network to connect its eight electric substations and all city offices, including City Hall, public schools, libraries, and the police and fire departments. That might have been seen as a logical extension for a utility company. But mission creep was inevitable, and in 2002, BVU began deploying a fiber-to-the-home network for residential customers. At the same time, it started to expand its OptiNet broadband network into Southwestern Virginia using revenue bonds, plus grants from the federal and state governments and tobacco settlement money—for a total of $132 million spent. In the end, OptiNet managed to pick up 13,000 customers and get spun off into an independent authority with its own board of directors. "Everyone knew that broadband would help the economy in the future, but nobody knew how." Cash inflows from successive govern[...]

It's OK to Edit Your Kids' Genes


This summer, American scientists reported successfully editing out a harmful gene from the genomes of human embryos. Researchers led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov—a reproductive biology specialist at the Oregon Health and Science University—used CRISPR gene editing to achieve this result. The process enables biologists to precisely cut out and replace bits of the DNA that make up the genes of microbes, plants, and animals. In this case, the researchers mended a deleterious gene variant that causes enlarged hearts and often results in sudden death early in life. Unlike earlier research in China, the Oregon team reported getting the repaired genes into every cell in 42 out of the 58 embryos they edited. In most of the cases, the process did not create new off-target mutations. Since Congress has banned the National Institutes of Health from funding research using gene-editing technologies in human embryos, this proof-of-concept research was underwritten by private foundations and universities. The embryos developed for three days and were never intended to be used to create pregnancies. Other researchers a month later challenged the results, suggesting that they need further validation. But for now Mitalipov stands by his findings. "We've always said in the past gene editing shouldn't be done, mostly because it couldn't be done safely," Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Richard Hynes told The New York Times. "Now it looks like it's going to be done safely soon." If the technique does prove harmless, such gene-edited embryos could be allowed to develop into people who would no longer pass down their familial genetic afflictions to subsequent generations. Naturally, this advance displeases the anti–"designer baby" claque of bioethicists. "I think it's extraordinarily disturbing," Marcy Darnovsky, who directs the Berkeley-based Center for Genetics and Society, told NPR. "It's a flagrant disregard of calls for a broad societal consensus in decisions about a really momentous technology that could be used [for] good, but in this case is being used in preparation for an extraordinarily risky application." "If irresponsible scientists are not stopped, the world may soon be presented with a fait accompli of the first [genetically modified, or G.M.] baby," David King said in the same NPR report. King, who heads the U.K.-based group Human Genetics Alert, wants "governments and international organizations to wake up and pass an immediate global ban on creating cloned or G.M. babies, before it is too late." But in February, a panel of 22 scientists and other experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences issued Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance, which refused to call for a ban on gene-editing embryos. The panel concluded that "heritable germline genome editing trials must be approached with caution, but caution does not mean that they must be prohibited." Germline refers to genetic material being passed from generation to generation through the sperm and egg. In August, the American Society of Human Genetics and 10 other reproductive medicine organizations concurred with a statement saying that there's no reason to prohibit the sort of embryo-editing research undertaken by the Oregon team. That said, given safety and ethical issues, the statement also argued that at this time it is still "inappropriate to perform germline gene editing that culminates in human pregnancy." Ultimately, the gene-editing skeptics are calling for something akin to state-imposed eugenics. Early 20th century Progressive Era eugenicists used government power to forcibly prevent parents, via nonconsensual sterilizations, from passing on traits deemed deleterious. Now, 21st century eugenicists want the government to require people to risk passing along genes that the parents think are deleterious. In both cases, the state is empowered to decide what sorts of people are allowed to be born. People who want to[...]

The Rise of Atomic Humanism


"Only nuclear can lift all humans out of poverty while saving the natural environment," Michael Shellenberger said in his keynote address at the June meeting of the American Nuclear Society. "Nothing else—not coal, not solar, not geo-engineering—can do that." This, he declared, is one of the first principles of "atomic humanism."

Shellenberger is the founder of the green group Environmental Progress, which argues that the best tool for fighting climate change is the no-carbon power generated by nuclear reactors. His speech offered a tour through the sorry history of the environmentalist movement's falsehoods and exaggerations about the technology.

It begins with Ralph Nader, who started training activists on how to stop new nuclear plants in the 1960s. ("A nuclear plant could wipe out Cleveland," Nader once declared, "and the survivors would envy the dead.")

The Sierra Club soon jumped in. In his speech, Shellenberger quoted a secret 1974 memo from then–Executive Director Michael McCloskey: "Our campaign stressing the hazards of nuclear power will supply a rationale for increasing regulation…and add to the cost of the industry." The strategy worked to perfection.

And what was their alternative to nuclear? Nader argued that we didn't need it because we "have a far greater amount of fossil fuels in this country than we're owning up to…the tar sands…oil out of shale...methane in coal beds." In 1976, Gov. Jerry Brown (D–Calif.) advocated for the construction of a coal-fired plant in place of the proposed Sundesert nuclear power station.

We've paid the price. According to Shellenberger, California's carbon dioxide emissions are now 2.5 times higher than they would have been had the planned nuclear plants been allowed to go forward. Meanwhile, nearly 2 million people die annually as a result of pollution from fossil fuel power generation, making it almost 2,000 times more dangerous than nuclear power.

Worst of all, many prominent environmentalists actually worried that nuclear power would lead to overpopulation. "It'd be little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of cheap, clean, and abundant energy because of what we would do with it," Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins said in 1977. When Martin Litton, the Sierra Club member who launched a campaign in the mid-1960s to kill the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California, was asked if he worried about nuclear accidents, he reportedly replied, "No, in fact, I really didn't care because there are too many people in the world anyway."

Atomic humanism sounds a lot better than that.

Go Ahead, Put Salt on Your Food


"Salt," an unknown wit once said, "is what makes things taste bad when it isn't in them." In that sense, government nutrition nannies have spent decades urging Americans to make their food taste bad.

In June 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued proposed guidelines to the food industry to reduce the amount of sodium in many prepared foods. The agency, noting that the average American eats about 3,400 mg of sodium daily, wants to cut that back to only 2,300 mg. That is basically the amount of sodium in one teaspoon of salt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) similarly advises that "most Americans should consume less sodium" because "excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart disease and stroke."

There's one problem: Evidence has been gathering for years that government salt consumption guidelines might well kill more people than they save.

The research does suggest that some subset of Americans may be especially sensitive to salt and would benefit from consuming less. Among those are folks with ancestors from Sub-Saharan Africa. But for most people, the risk lies elsewhere.

A 2014 meta-analysis of more than two dozen relevant studies, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, concluded that risk of death appeared to be lowest among individuals consuming between 2,565 mg and 4,796 mg of sodium per day, with higher rates of death above and below that consumption range. As noted above, the FDA itself reports that average daily consumption is 3,400 mg—right in the middle of the ideal range.

In April, a new study by researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine, who followed more than 2,600 people for 16 years, once again debunked the dire claims about salt. "We saw no evidence that a diet lower in sodium had any long-term beneficial effects on blood pressure," said lead researcher Lynn Moore. "Our findings add to growing evidence that current recommendations for sodium intake may be misguided."

In fact, the authors found that study participants who consumed less than 2,500 mg a day had higher blood pressure than those who consumed more. They also pointed out that other research has also found that people who consume very high or very low amounts are both at greater cardiovascular risk. "Those with the lowest risk," they noted, "had sodium intakes in the middle, which is the range consumed by most Americans."

Are Robots Going to Steal Our Jobs?


"The reality is that we are facing a jobless future: one in which most of the work done by humans will be done by machines. Robots will drive our cars, manufacture our goods, and do our chores, but there won't be much work for human beings." That's the dire warning of software entrepreneur and Carnegie Mellon engineer Vivek Wadhwa. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates agrees: Technology "will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set," he has predicted. Gates has also proposed taxing robots to support the victims of technological unemployment. "In the past," software entrepreneur Martin Ford declared last year, "machines have always been tools that have been used by people." But now, he fears, they're "becoming a replacement or a substitute for more and more workers." A much-cited 2013 study from the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment struck an even more dire note, estimating that 47 percent of today's American jobs are at risk of being automated within the next two decades. The conventional wisdom among technologists is well-established: Robots are going to eat our jobs. But economists tend to have a different perspective. Over the past two centuries, they point out, automation has brought us lots more jobs—and higher living standards too. "Is this time different?" the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist David Autor said in a lecture last year. "Of course this time is different; every time is different. On numerous occasions in the last 200 years scholars and activists have raised the alarm that we are running out of work and making ourselves obsolete.…These predictions strike me as arrogant." "We are neither headed toward a rise of the machine world nor a utopia where no one works anymore," said Michael Jones, an economist at the University of Cincinnati, last year. "Humans will still be necessary in the economy of the future, even if we can't predict what we will be doing." When the Boston University economist James Bessen analyzed computerization and employment trends in the U.S. since 1980, his study concluded that "computer use is associated with a small increase in employment on average, not major job losses." Who is right, the terrified technologists or the totally chill economists? This Time Is Always Different In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I refused to grant a patent to William Lee for his invention of the stocking frame knitting machine, which sped up the production of wool hosiery. "Thou aimest high, Master Lee," she declared. "Consider thou what the invention could do to my poor subjects. It would assuredly bring to them ruin by depriving them of employment, thus making them beggars." In the early 19th century, English textile workers calling themselves Luddites famously sought to protect their livelihoods by smashing industrial weaving machines. The economist John Maynard Keynes warned in 1930 that the "means of economising the use of labour [is] outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour," resulting in the "new disease" of "technological unemployment." In 1961, Time warned: "Today's new industries have comparatively few jobs for the unskilled or semiskilled, just the class of workers whose jobs are being eliminated by automation." A 1989 study by the International Metalworkers Federation forecasted that within 30 years, as little as 2 percent of the world's current labor force "will be needed to produce all the goods necessary for total demand." That prediction has just two years left to come true. This year the business consultancy McKinsey Global Institute issued a report that analyzed the potential impact of automation on individual work activities rather than entire occupations. The McKinsey researchers concluded that only 5 percent of occupations are fully automatable using currently available technologies. On the other hand, the repo[...]

Will Florida Ban Fracking?


Florida produces very little oil and natural gas. According to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, it has just 64 wells in operation, which gave the world a total of 2 million barrels of oil and 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas in all of 2016. None of those were drilled using fracking techniques.

So why did the Florida Senate consider a ban in March? It turns out that familiarity breeds acceptance, according to a January 2017 working paper by the Oregon State University sociologist Hilary Boudet and her colleagues. In the Sunshine State, the inverse seems to be true.

The authors wanted to find out how Americans who live next door to fracked wells feel about them, compared to folks who don't. So they analyzed nationally representative survey data probing the attitudes of nearly 20,000 people in nine waves between 2012 and 2016. They combined the survey results with data about how close respondents actually lived to oil and gas wells.

Among respondents who said they were familiar with fracking, which involves injecting high-pressure fluids into wells to create minute cracks that release trapped oil and natural gas, the researchers found "generalizable empirical evidence that those who are located closer to new unconventional oil and gas wells are more familiar with and more supportive of hydraulic fracturing." In other words, folks who live closer to wells are more likely to come down on the side of yimby—Yes In My Backyard.

Conversely, people living farther away from oil and gas development are more likely to associate fracking with negative impacts. Respondents in Denver (12 miles away on average from a newly active well) are more supportive of fracking than respondents in Orlando (400 miles away on average). So Floridians say nimby—Not In My Backyard—even though fracking is nowhere near their backyards.

Combined with directional drilling, this form of unconventional well development has boosted daily U.S. oil production from 5 million barrels in 2008 to nearly 9 million barrels now, and it has increased annual U.S. natural gas production from a plateau in 1970–2005 at 18 trillion cubic feet to over 27 trillion cubic feet today. This helped to cut the prices of these fossil fuels to about half of what they were a decade ago.

The Left Is Rebranding Environmental Regulations As Environmental Protections


"Trump signs order at the EPA to dismantle environmental protections," declares a March 28 headline in The Washington Post. An April 27 article in the Post described an "effort to remove environmental protections." Two days later, another Post article stated that Trump's term in office has "already seen multiple rollbacks of environmental protections." The Post isn't the only publication pushing such language. Here's The New York Times: "President Trump's unfortunate and misguided rollback of environmental protections has led to a depressing and widespread belief that the United States can no longer meet its commitment under the Paris climate change agreement." Here's The Huffington Post: "Environmental Protections Save Lives, Create Jobs And Strengthen The Economy." Here's The New Yorker: "It's clear that we're about to witness the steady demolition, or attempted demolition, of the environmental protections that have been put in place over the past five decades." In each of those instances, the words "environmental protections" could easily have been replaced by "environmental regulations." I'm speaking anecdotally here, but in recent months both mainstream and activist media have seemed to use "environmental protections" more often and "environmental regulations" less. Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." And one of the chief paths of persuasion, he argued, comes "when the speech stirs their emotions." So which word has more emotional appeal, regulation or protection? Regulation denotes "a law, rule, or other order prescribed by authority, especially to regulate conduct." Protection is defined as "the act of protecting or the state of being protected; preservation from injury or harm." Regulation is coercive, perhaps punitive; protection is warm and fuzzy. As I puzzled over this apparent shift in terminology, my mind naturally turned to the retired Berkeley linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Lakoff has spent years thinking about how political progressives could become more persuasive with the public. To achieve that, he wants progressives to engage in what he calls "honest reframing." "Reframing is telling the truth as we see it—telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation," he writes. Lakoff believes that conservatives have been masterful at rhetoric, ah, framing. He cites the phrase "tax relief," which implies that taxes are an affliction and the politicians who favor it are heroes. People on the left, he argues, need to reframe progressive taxation as requiring "those who benefit most should pay their fair share." So I was not surprised to discover that in January Lakoff wrote a short essay titled "The Public's Viewpoint: Regulations Are Protections." He begins by citing Trump's assertion that he intends to "cut regulations by 75 percent, maybe more." Then Lakoff asks, "What is a 'regulation'?" He goes on to assert that from the viewpoint of corporations, "'regulations' are limitations on their freedom to do whatever they want no matter who it harms." (Never mind that killing customers is usually not a good business strategy.) On the other hand, Lakoff claims that the public views a regulation as being "a protection against harm done by unscrupulous corporations seeking to maximize profit at the cost of harm to the public." Lakoff's solution? "Imagine the NY Times, or even the USA Today headline: Trump to Eliminate 75% of Public Protections," writes Lakoff. "Imagine reporters finding out and reporting all over America exactly what protections would be removed." One of his three key takeaways is: "Shift the frame: always say 'protections' instead of 'regulations.' "Protections" is a more simple and accurate description." [...]

You Are Ignorant, But Not Necessarily Dumb.


You probably suffer from the "illusion of explanatory depth." Moreover, you often succumb to the "illusion of understanding." So say two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach of Colorado University and Steven Sloman of Brown, in The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Disagree? OK, then write down how a zipper works. Or draw all the parts of a simple bicycle in their proper places. If that's too complicated, tell me: How does a flush toilet operate? The illusion of explanatory depth was exposed in experiments by Frank Keil, a cognitive scientist at Cornell. Keil asked subjects to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how confident they were about their understanding of how such mechanisms as zippers, flush toilets, helicopters, quartz watches, and piano keys worked. Then Keil asked them to write down a detailed explanation. Most could not. Afterwards, Keil reported, "many participants reported genuine surprise and new humility at how much less they knew than they originally thought." Fernbach and Sloman then report cognitive scientist Thomas Landauer's estimate that the average adult's brain has the capacity to store about a gigabyte of information. The computer on which I am typing this review has about 1,000 times more memory than that. "Human beings are not warehouses of knowledge," the authors observe. Instead, we maneuver through the complexities that surround us by abstracting the relevant information that enables us to achieve our goals. The purpose of thinking, Fernbach and Sloman argue, is to choose the most effective action given the current situation. Our minds think causally, not logically. To illustrate that, the authors offer a logical puzzle: If my underwear is blue, then my socks must be green. My socks are green. Therefore my underwear is blue. When asked, many people agree with the conclusion. But what about: If I fall into a sewer, then I need a shower. I took a shower. Therefore, I fell into a sewer. It's the same logical mistake, but this time our knack for causal thinking prevents most people from making it. The authors also note that we are much better at thinking about how a cause produces an effect than we are at reasoning backward from an effect to find its cause. It is easier for a doctor predict that an ulcer will cause stomach pain than that stomach pain is the result of an ulcer. We are better at prediction than diagnosis. The authors also cite Daniel Kahneman, the economics Nobelist who elucidated the difference between intuitive and deliberative thinking. Think of an animal whose name starts with E. For most Americans, elephant comes to mind quickly and intuitively. (For the record, I thought of echidnas. I don't know why.) Now unravel the anagram: vaeertidebli. The answer is "deliberative" and, for most of us, it takes deliberative thinking to figure it out. The authors argue that we depend upon intuitive thinking to navigate most of our daily lives. We tend to turn to deliberative thinking when we encounter novel situations or engage in cooperative activities with others. Sloman and Fernbach note that more deliberative folks are somewhat less subject to the illusion of explanatory depth, and that they score better on the standard 3-item test measuring cognitive reflection. (Less than 20 percent of the U.S. population gets all three answers right.) If we are all so deeply ignorant, how is the modern world possible? The book's answer is that we live in hive mind where knowledge is distributed throughout the human community. We are, in the authors' words, "built to collaborate." When we don't know something, we tap into the knowledge and expertise of our fellow human beings." Ignorance has to do with how much you, whereas being dumb is relative to other people," the authors point out. Like everyone else you are[...]

Peoples Climate Movement March for Jobs, Justice and the Climate


Tomorrow around 100,000 Americans are expected to join the Peoples Climate March, which plans to stream from the Capitol up Pennsylvania Avenue while demanding jobs, justice, and—oh, yes—action on climate change. The plan is to "literally" surround the White House, then stage a 100-second sit-in, symbolizing the first 100 days of Donald Trump's administration. (Perhaps President Trump will hear the protests tomorrow afternoon, but he plans to hold a rally in Pennsylvania that evening.) It's another example of social justice movements hijacking the problem of climate change and using it as a pretext for attacking our system of market-tested betterment and innovation. Naomi Klein made this agenda explicit in her 2014 book This Changes Everything, which asserted that climate science has given progressives "the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism" ever. Canonical Marxism predicted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its class "contradictions," in which the bourgeoisie profit from the proletariat's labor until we reach a social breaking point. In Klein's update, capitalism will collapse because the pollution produced by heedless overconsumption will build to an ecological breaking point. "Only mass social movements can save us now," she declared. Tomorrow's march is a reprise of a 2014 Peoples Climate March in New York City, in which some 400,000 people participated. As in 2014, progressive economic and social policies are at the top of the marchers' agenda. The demonstrators are demanding emissions cuts deep enough to keep the planet from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial global average temperature. (By at least one calculation, that would mean that global carbon dioxide emissions would have to peak by 2020 and fall to zero by 2050.) But they also want "an equitable and sustainable New Energy and Economic Future." Among other things, this entails a $15 per hour minimum wage, the right to form unions, and investments targeted to give low-income Americans and people of color access to good jobs. Paul Getsos, national coordinator for the Peoples Climate Movement, also demands that the White House "immediately stop attacks on communities of color and immigrant, Muslim, indigenous and LGBTQIA communities." How this helps solve climate change is not at all clear. The pre-march line-up confirms the organizers' social justice aspirations. Heading off the parade are the "protectors of justice," which includes native youth and youth of color, the indigenous women's delegation, and Black Lives Matter activists, among others. Next up are the "creators of sanctuary," which includes immigrants, LGBTQI, women, Latinos, Waterkeepers, and food sovereignty and land rights marchers. Third in line stand the "builders of democracy," who are representatives from labor, government workers, voting rights, and democracy organizations. The fourth contingent is the "guardians of the future," who speak for kids, parents, elders, youth, students, and peace activists. Fifth come the "defenders of the truth," representing scientists, educators, technologists, and the health community; sixth are the "keepers of faith," consisting of religious groups. The "reshapers of power" are seventh: anti-corporate, anti-nuclear, anti­–fossil fuel, and pro–renewable energy activists, plus bicyclists and other transportation advocates. The final place in the lineup is called "many struggles, one home." It's reserved for environmentalists, climate activists, the business community, and everyone else. The Peoples Climate March will alienate tens of millions of Americans who accept that man-made climate change poses significant risks but do not agree that the only solution is to try to transform [...]

An Epidemic of Bad Epidemiology


Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks, by Geoffrey C. Kabat, Columbia University Press, 248 pages, $35 Eating bacon and ham four times a week could make asthma symptoms worse. Drinking hot coffee and tea may cause cancer of the esophagus. South Africa's minister of health warns that doggy-style sex is a major cause of stroke and cancer in men. And those claims come from the health headlines of just one December week. The media inundate us daily with studies that seem to show that modern life is increasingly risky. Most of those stories must be false, given that life expectancy for American men and women, respectively, has risen from 71.8 and 78.8 years in 1990 to 76.3 and 81.1 years now. Apparently, we are suffering through an epidemic of bad epidemiology. When it comes to separating the wheat of good public health research from the chaff of studies that are mediocre or just plain bad, Albert Einstein College of Medicine epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat is a national treasure. "Most research findings are false or exaggerated, and the more dramatic the result, the less likely it is to be true," he declares in his excellent new book Getting Risk Right. Kabat's earlier book, 2008's Hyping Health Risks (Columbia University Press), thoroughly dismantled the prevalent medical myths that man-made chemicals, electromagnetic fields, radon, and passive smoking were significant causes of such illnesses as cancer and heart disease. His new book shows how scientific research so often goes wrong—and how hard it is for it to go right. Kabat first reminds readers that finding a correlation between phenomena X and Y does not mean that X causes Y. Nevertheless, many researchers are happy to overinterpret such findings to suggest causation. "If researchers can slip into this way of interpreting and presenting results of their studies," observes Kabat, "it becomes easier to understand how journalists, regulators, activists of various stripes, self-appointed health gurus, promoters of health-related foods and products, and the public can make the unwarranted leap that the study being reported provides evidence of a causal relationship and therefore is worthy of our interest." He offers some principles to keep in mind when evaluating studies. First and foremost is the toxicological maxim that the dose makes the poison. The more exposure to a toxin, the greater the harm. Potency matters greatly too. Often very sensitive assays show that two different compounds can bind to the same receptors in the body, but what really matters biologically is how avidly and how strongly one binds compared to the other. Another principle: Do not confuse hazard, a potential source of harm, with risk, the likelihood that the hazard will cause harm. Consider bacon. The influential International Agency for Research on Cancer declared bacon a hazard for cancer in 2015, but the agency does not make risk assessments. Eating two slices of bacon per day is calculated to increase your lifetime risk of colorectal cancer from 5 to 6 percent. Put that way, I suspect most people would choose to continue to enjoy cured pork products. Kabat also argues that an editorial bias skews the scientific literature toward publishing results suggesting harms. Such findings, he notes, get more attention from other researchers, from regulators, from journalists, and from activists. Ever since Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring wrongly linked cancer with exposures to trace amounts of pesticides, the American public has been primed to blame external causes rather than personal behaviors for their health problems. Unfortunately, as Kabat notes, the existence of an alarmed and sensitized public is all too useful to regulat[...]

Scientists’ March on Washington


In the flush of excitement after the post-inaugural Women's March on Washington, someone in a Reddit conversation suggested, "There needs to be a Scientists' March on Washington." Sensing that a march on Washington might sound too aggressively partisan, the organizers have now renamed the event the March for Science. That march will take place tomorrow, on Earth Day, which the coordinators somehow figured would be the perfect nonpartisan date on which to muster tens of thousands of scientists and their comrades on the National Mall. "We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely," warns the march's mission statement. "Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science." From whom do the marchers hope to defend science? Certainly not the American public: Most Americans are fairly strong supporters of the scientific enterprise. An October 2016 Pew Research Center poll reported, "Three-quarters of Americans (76%) have either a great deal (21%) or a fair amount of confidence (55%) in scientists, generally, to act in the public interest." The General Social Survey notes that public confidence in scientists stands out among the most stable of about 13 institutions rated in the GSS survey since the mid-1970s. (For what it's worth, the GSS reports only 8 percent of the public say that they have a great deal of confidence in the press, but at least that's higher than the 6 percent who say the same about Congress.) The mission statement also declares, "The application of science to policy is not a partisan issue. Anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they harm everyone—without exception." I thoroughly endorse that sentiment. But why didn't the scientific community march when the Obama administration blocked over-the-counter access to emergency contraception to women under age 17? Or dawdled for years over the approval of genetically enhanced salmon? Or tried to kill off the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage facility? Or halted the development of direct-to-consumer genetic testing? One problem is that many of the marchers apparently believe that scientific evidence necessarily implies the adoption of certain policies. This ignores the always salient issue of trade-offs. For example, acknowledging that man-made global warming could become a significant problem does not mean that the only "scientific" policy response must be the immediate deployment of the current versions of solar and wind power. The mission statement proclaims that the marchers "unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest." Setting aside the fact that the march was conceived in the immediate wake of the decidedly partisan and specifically anti-Trump Women's March on Washington, how credible are these claims to non-partisanship? As it happens, I received an email on Thursday from the publicist for Shaughnessy Naughton, who is a chemist, a cancer researcher, and the founder of the activist group 314 Action. Naughton's group is one of the March's 170 partner organizations. 314 Action's political action committee is recruiting scientists, engineers, and other technologists to run for political office, and it plans to provide them with the "resources they need to become viable, credible, Democratic candidates." The publicist informed me that Naughton is "available to discuss this weekend's March for Science in Washington, D.C., which will assemble scientists from across the country to rally a[...]

Welcoming Immigrants Means Higher Wages


"The benefits that immigration brings to society far outweigh their costs," declares an open letter to congressional leaders and President Donald Trump. The letter, published on Wednesday and signed by nearly 1,500 economists—including six Nobel Prize winners—notes that immigrant entrepreneurs start new businesses that hire lots of Americans; that immigrants are far more likely to work in innovative, job-creating fields such as science, technology, and engineering; and that they bring diverse skill sets that keep our workforce flexible, help companies grow, and increase the productivity of American workers. A new study parsing employment data between 1991 and 2008 confirms that immigrants significantly boost both the productivity and the wages of workers. The paper, published this week in the journal Economic Geography, compares how 160 U.S. metropolitan areas are faring according to the statistics compiled by the Census Bureau's Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program. (This dataset has information on more than 30 million workers at 1.2 million businesses, including their sex, age, race, wages, length of employment, education, and country of birth.) The authors, economic geographers Abigail Cooke of SUNY-Buffalo and Tom Kemeny of the University of Southampton, note that "inclusive institutions" encourage trust, lowering costs and fostering cooperation. To get a handle on how inclusive various American cities are with respect to immigrants, the two researchers devise two indicators. The first measures how widespread social capital is in each city, and the second accounts for pro- and anti-immigrant ordinances adopted by local governments. Social capital consists of the connections of trust between individuals and entities that can be economically valuable. The authors constructed their indicator for social capital by assessing data from the County Business Patterns on the number of social, political, advocacy, business, professional, and labor associations per 10,000 residents in each metropolitan area. They also take into account the number of gathering places, such as specialty food shops, restaurants, cafés, bars, hair salons, corner stores, fitness centers, sports clubs, and bowling alleys. For a stark contrast between places with inclusive institutions and those without, the researchers focus their analysis on the cities that scored in the top and bottom third of their social capital indicator. Municipalities with the highest social capital included Appleton, Wisconsin; Des Moines, Iowa; and Trenton, New Jersey. Those with the lowest include McAllen, Texas; Fayetteville, North Carolina; and San Bernardino, California. Next they develop an inclusiveness indicator based on pro- and anti-immigration ordinances enacted by various metropolitan areas. They note that most of the ordinances specifically focus on undocumented immigrants, but they argue that their adoption indicates residents' attitudes toward immigration more generally. Some cities pass English-only rules or try to punish employers who hire undocumented immigrants; others pass sanctuary laws. In their analysis, they include the 160 urban areas that alternatively crossed thresholds in which at least 50 percent of their municipalities and counties had adopted either pro- or anti-immigrant ordinances. Metropolitan regions with more mixed policies were excluded. Among the cities scoring highest on the pro-immigrant indicator were Salem, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Fresno, California. Anti-immigrant areas included Charlotte, North Carolina; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Harrisonburg, Virginia. On top of all that, the researchers used the Census data to determine wha[...]