Friday, November 28, 2008

Moderation Policy

I've been participating in online community discussions for about 35 years now (starting with the Plato System in 1974.) I've seen numerous discussion groups start, grow, become diseased (with trolls, hostile opponents, etc.), recover, mature, senesce, and die.

I was among the first on Usenet Groups (which were an imitation of the newsgroups on the Plato System), and if you want to read some of my early (1984) Usenet postings, search google groups for "Huybensz" (my maiden name, which nobody ever pronounced or spelled correctly, now shortened to Huben) or "mrh". Google's cache of early postings is very incomplete.

So when moderation policy issues come up, I do think I know something about it. Sometimes they have come up here, sometimes people who dislike my position or style bring them up in their own blogs.

Here, as a heuristic, I tend not to allow anonymous comments. It is trivial to create a pseudonymous google (or other) identity: that's no real obstacle, despite protests from fools like Skeptico. It does deter the most casual annoying commenters. But the big win is that it allows us to have lines of argument person by person, rather than a contradictary chorus of an anonymous crowd.

I also rarely delete comments. I'm reluctant to do so, but sometimes there are good reasons that are not encapsulated by simple rules.

The best explanation of managing comments in blogs that I've seen is from Teresa Nielsen Hayden, her post NOT titled Some things I know about moderating conversations in virtual space.

Here are her principles:

1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden.

2. Once you have a well-established online conversation space, with enough regulars to explain the local mores to newcomers, they’ll do a lot of the policing themselves.

3. You own the space. You host the conversation. You don’t own the community. Respect their needs. For instance, if you’re going away for a while, don’t shut down your comment area. Give them an open thread to play with, so they’ll still be there when you get back.

4. Message persistence rewards people who write good comments.

5. Over-specific rules are an invitation to people who get off on gaming the system.

6. Civil speech and impassioned speech are not opposed and mutually exclusive sets. Being interesting trumps any amount of conventional politeness.

7. Things to cherish: Your regulars. A sense of community. Real expertise. Genuine engagement with the subject under discussion. Outstanding performances. Helping others. Cooperation in maintenance of a good conversation. Taking the time to teach newbies the ropes.

All these things should be rewarded with your attention and praise. And if you get a particularly good comment, consider adding it to the original post.

8. Grant more lenience to participants who are only part-time jerks, as long as they’re valuable the rest of the time.

9. If you judge that a post is offensive, upsetting, or just plain unpleasant, it’s important to get rid of it, or at least make it hard to read. Do it as quickly as possible. There’s no more useless advice than to tell people to just ignore such things. We can’t. We automatically read what falls under our eyes.

10. Another important rule: You can let one jeering, unpleasant jerk hang around for a while, but the minute you get two or more of them egging each other on, they both have to go, and all their recent messages with them. There are others like them prowling the net, looking for just that kind of situation. More of them will turn up, and they’ll encourage each other to behave more and more outrageously. Kill them quickly and have no regrets.

11. You can’t automate intelligence. In theory, systems like Slashdot’s ought to work better than they do. Maintaining a conversation is a task for human beings.

12. Disemvowelling works. Consider it.

13. If someone you’ve disemvowelled comes back and behaves, forgive and forget their earlier gaffes. You’re acting in the service of civility, not abstract justice.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The One Ring

I don't really have a personal blog (just how many should I have?) but I want to stash this somewhere on the web.

I teach Precalculus, and one of the key ideas for explaining the trigonometric functions is the unit circle ( with a radius of 1.) Tolkein fans might appreciate how appropriate this poem is:

The One Ring
(Great Circle Of Power,
Math Student's Bane)

One Circle to rule them all,
One ring to find them,
Unit circle to calculate all,
and in trigonometry bind them.
In the study of Precalculus where the functions lie.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Lame Duck Ideological Sabotage Deterrence Bill

Yesterday, there was an NPR report that the Bush administration is charging ahead with plans to change regulations in industry-friendly ways that Obama would not be able to undo. For example: bypassing environmental regulations, approving various applications, etc.

This could be forestalled with a Lame Duck Ideological Sabotage Deterrence Bill. The idea is to get the threat out there that any company that benefits from lame duck regulatory changes (before Obama and Congress get to act) will be socked with a massive penalty tax, far in excess of the profits expected from the regulatory change.

Of course, this could be prettied up and done informally.

Alternatively, Obama could be negotiating with Bush not to do this. Obama has a major bargaining chip: how freely he will unleash the furies to discover and prosecute Bush administration crimes and malfeasance. I'd settle for a truth and reconciliation commission, though I'd love to see Bush and Co. extradited to the Hague to stand trial for war crimes such as torture. Bush cannot pardon anybody for international crimes, only for crimes against US law. I don't think Obama would ever use this club against Bush, but it sure would make me feel good.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sarah Palin Proudly Ignorant

Sarah Palin's speech ridiculing fruit fly research earmarks as wasteful has spawned an enormous reaction. However, that reaction is almost as wrongheaded as Palin.

When I read the criticism at Skeptico, I just couldn't resist deflating that (sometimes good and reasonable) windbag again for his confidence in his ignorance.

So many people are so wrong about this, that I've decided to post my response here as well. I wrote:

While it seems many people have their hearts in the right place on this subject, the press (and this site) are showing an incredible ignorance as well.

The common name "fruit fly" is used for SEVERAL FAMILIES of flies. The olive fruit fly (Bactrocera oleae) is in the family Tephritidae, while the common fruit fly of genetic research (more accurately called a vinegar fly or pomace fly) is in the family Drosophilidae.

Olive fruit flies have NEVER been important for genetic research, and anybody implying that this earmarked research is important for genetics is a fool ignorant of the differences between flies. I've yet to see the research proposal itself, but the few words I've seen describing it make it sound as if the research was for biological control through release of sterile irradiated males: a technique that has been used successfully to control several pest fly species such as the screwworm fly. That's economically valuable research that Palin is wrong to ridicule, but it also has nothing to do with genetics.

Once again, we see Skeptico (this time following the herd) making comments on a subject where he is extremely ignorant, where anybody familiar with the subject (like me: I had a course in fly systematics at Cornell) could immediately spot the howlers. I suppose his excuse is that he's as ignorant as most people, and doesn't have the sense to consult an expert in the RIGHT FIELD before he regurgitates bullshit from experts in the wrong field, who can't tell one family of flies from another.

Ayn Rand is not the source of the problem.

A correspondent wrote "Was just curious if you thought that the vast economic problems we're now facing could possibly be tracked to ideologies that Ayn Rand so cleverly designed and sold?"

A lot of people are trying to pin this down on Rand. But that makes no sense to me.

The basic source is the plutocracy of corporations and their owners. They are the first class citizens: government, business, and entrepreneurs serve them first. Rand was merely an entrepreneurial repackager and popularizer of plutocratic ideologies. As was Hayek, Mises, and Rothbard. As are CATO, Heritage, and a host of other think tanks.

I'm sure that the plutocracy would much rather we misdirected the blame at libertarians and other cats paws.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The financial crisis and libertarianism.

Jacob Weisberg has a new Slate article titled The End of Libertarianism: The financial collapse proves that its ideology makes no sense.

It's not a perfect article, and it may claim a bit more than is justified, but the basic point is sound. Financial markets cannot regulate themselves in ways necessary to prevent disasters, contrary to libertarian propaganda.

The largest cause of the financial contagion has been the credit default swap. These are unregulated, high-leverage derivatives that were created to circumvent normal insurance regulations. Without these derivatives, the damage done by the housing bubble collapse would not have paralyzed the entire lending industry.

Libertarians love to claim that markets swirl around and circumvent attempts at government control. Now we see the result of letting them do it. Numerous people called for this to be regulated, but the market fundamentalists were too influential.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Krugman wins his Nobel Prize

Many years ago, Steve Kangas pointed me to Paul Krugman as a really good economist. I've followed his writings in numerous sources since then, and have at least ten of them in the Critiques indexes. (Go to the All Links page and scroll to the first mention of his name.)

Krugman has many harsh things to say about libertarianism and Austrian economics. The one that is really relevant today is The Hangover Theory: Are recessions the inevitable payback for good times?.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Why we won't have Mars or Moon colonies for a LONG time.

A thought while driving.

I've long loved the science fiction / futurist dream of establishing extraterrestrial colonies. But I've realized why it won't happen any time in the next century or so.

A colony requires a technology of production that will (in combination with trade) allow self-sufficiency and growth.

If we look at past successful colonizations, we can spot the technologies. Europeans brought technologies for dominance and agriculture, and were able to adapt technologies of the native peoples. Polynesians brought marine and agricultural technologies.

Now, some polyannas might claim we have the technologies for the Moon or Mars, and start listing solar power and other Heinlein/Clarke stuff, but it's obvious to me that's wrong. Yes we have those technologies, but they are not right or sufficient. We have a very simple demonstration why, right at our doorsteps.


It would be far easier to colonize Antartica than anywhere in space, and yet we haven't in roughly 100 years. We have some stations there, but NOTHING IS BEING PRODUCED for local consumption or for trade. (Yes, you could argue that scientific information is being produced, but face it: a real colony has a COMMERCIAL life that supports its own population.) Other excuses are easily made (for example international treaties), but if there was commercial opportunity due to technology in Antartica, we'd exploit it as fast as we exploited offshore oil: the treaties would change.

We haven't even colonized tropical shallow waters, let alone under water. Offshore oil fields are not colonized. Vast commercial opportunities await in those locations, but no colonies. Because it isn't enough to have a technology for commercial exploitation only: you must have an array of technologies for daily living of a community before you really have a colony. Otherwise you're just an outpost. It can be argued that Chilean's have a permanently occupied Antartic colony, and that satisfies the daily living technology requirement. But I'd point out that it is not a commercial success: it is a highly subsidized investment in geopolitical claims staking.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Paying for the bailout.

I know I've got maybe 3 readers but I want to be on the record with this one.

All the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the general public having to pay for the bailout seems to be missing three little words.

Capital. Gains. Tax.

Nice populist ring to them: but you won't hear them from somebody like McCain.

Now, I don't know if that makes any economic sense as an idea, and I'm not proposing it as a serious solution because I'm not knowledgeable enough to think it through. But I'm shocked that nobody's using the words yet. Populists could use the bailout as a justification for continuing or increasing the CGT. Plutocrats could use the CGT as justification for the bailout -- what have they been paying for all this time? Spin could go either way.

A further source of joy for me is to hear all the howls of "communism" coming from the usual capitalism-uber-alles lunatics. Here they have the most compliant right-wing presidential lapdog they could ever have asked for. But when faced with the possibility of being branded the second Herbert Hoover for bringing on a second world-wide great depression, he scurries to nationalize. Maybe that sounds as if he's working against his patron capitalists, but chances are it will boil down to government handouts to the corporations and the rich.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Enough pissing match with Skeptico for me.

This answer to Skeptico is being held for review by him. So in the mean time...

The discussion with Skeptico is getting tedious, so I'm not going to answer everything (we know how that would lead to exponential growth) but instead will pick the low-hanging fruit.

Like many pompous people, Skeptico seems to think his reasoning is logical, and other people's fails to be logical because he sees them as rife with fallacies of logic. That's simply a delusion: we ALL engage in defeasible reasoning except in a very few excruciatingly precise circumstances where we start out with agreed upon precise meanings of terms, assumptions, and premises and apply only logical operators. In short, it doesn't happen much outside of mathematics. We see lots of examples of this delusion in Skeptico's latest response: I'd love to see him identify ONE example of where he uses a logical argument with unquestionable assumptions, definitions, and 100% true premises. He says, for example, "...not one shred of evidence in there that you are right and I am wrong about anything..." What perfection! I couldn't make up better examples. But of course, he can only make that dishonest claim because he is referring to the introduction, not the evidence that follows. The term for that is "quote mining" or "taken out of context".

Skeptico describes my introduction as "poisoning the well". Would Skeptico ever commit such a heinous crime? Well, let's see: a quick google search for "woo" turned up 454 hits at his blog. But is it really poisoning the well? I'd say it is an abstract presenting a model, and the remainder of my post was evidence supporting the model I presented. Thank goodness we have folks like Skeptico to show us that science journals worldwide have been utilizing such fallacies of argument!

"In fact, I don't think I've ever mentioned low food prices before, although I could be wrong." Well shucks, perhaps you should learn to search your own postings, or perhaps maybe even remember what you said.
"If GM actually did produce low food prices, most people would view this as a good thing."
But here is only one of many uses of weasle words by Skeptico: he pre-excuses himself when it is convenient to write something and he doesn't care if it is a lie.

"Random factoid (of debatable veracity), also a straw man and I believe even a Reductio ad Hitlerum logical fallacy. (And don't deny that - what other context of the German phrase "uber alles" is there but "Deutschland uber alles" and Hitler?)"
Well, if you look at what Wikipedia says about it, August Heinrich Hoffmann [...] wrote the text in 1841[...] The first line, "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt" (Germany, Germany above everything, above everything in the world), was an appeal to the various German sovereigns to give the creation of a united Germany a higher priority than the independence of their small states. It has been the national anthem of Germany since 1922 during the Weimar Republic. Its origin and adoption had no connection to Hitler or Naziism. Your contention that there is no other context is merely due to your own cultural ignorance, susceptibility to WWII propaganda and lack of research.

"Here's the thing Mike. You are on the Internet, using what may be your real name or what may be an alias, conversing with others who may or may not be using aliases. You don't know who they are even if they tell you. We don't know who you are even if you tell us."
Ooo, don't the Hare Krishna's use something like this? Non Krishnas are demons and will lie, so we don't need to pay attention to their arguments? Or are you taking pyrrhonism to ridiculous lengths, denying the possibility of knowledge of my identity and qualifications? It so happens that if you do a little bit of homework, my identity and knowledge can be confirmed. And you don't even need the net (though you can): I am pictured on the front page of the Boston Globe newspaper today. Is that main stream media good enough for you? My resume, picture, and lots of other information are at my web sites, and have been for many years. If you're still worried about my identity, I can provide references. Twit.

"The evidence matters."
Yes, evidence does matter: but so does the framework of understanding which is necessary to judge it. You, and most of the readers here, don't have that understanding, any more than you have the necessary understanding of any number of other technical fields. Your conspicuous errors repeatedly show that you know little of the field. (Ugh, a pun.)

You have stated no qualifications in the subject of agricultural economics. I, on the other hand, have been following it for the past 35 years since I was a freshman at Cornell. That's why you bungled the difference between yield per acre and productivity.

"Now remember, I started my reply with 'I think you're saying...' - which any rational and mentally stable individual would have taken as a person's honest attempt to understand your point."
Ah, general purpose weasle words once again. Now, does that translate into "I declare that you are saying" or "It's possible that you are saying"? Or someplace in between? If you had wanted to convince anybody that you were making a decent attempt (rather than spewing the first foolish thing that came to your prejudiced mind), you would have considered more than one possible meaning and justified why you chose that one. Before you invented a litany of reasons why your misinterpretation meant that I was wrong.

"Reading your posts again I realize you don't show anger, and that I was perhaps projecting my own anger at your style of debating[...] I apologize for calling what you wrote "angry drivel". I was wrong saying that. I should have called it unnecessarily confrontational, aggressive, loud mouthed, smug arrogance."
So let's see. Skeptico is confessing to my accusations of his projection and anger. But not because he's an honest guy or anything, but because it's so damned obvious that even he can see it now. Is it clever sarcasm now to channel that same stupid anger into a backhanded compliment? And to use emotive weasle words like those? We've seen how those work: men are confident, women are smug. Sounds like more projection to me.

Skeptico (and others) quoted my statement: "I get paid to teach (at an elite public high school)". He wrote:
"LMAO. Oh you don't think you're infallible, noooo. You need to write to express not to impress[....]"
Ah, a perfect example of that old creationist favorite, quote mining. In context, I wrote that sentence as part of an explanation of why I would not waste my time answering demands for explanation from every Tom, Dick, and Harry. Not as a statement of authority in agricultural economics.

"An honest mistake, especially if expressed with some doubt (as I did), is not a straw man."
Wow, since when did you get to rewrite the rules of logic to grant yourself exceptions when you've used weasle words? And we're to believe you're honest when you've already confessed to being angry and projecting? Lots of creationists think they're honest when they misinterpret evolution: will you exempt them too? Or do they always forget to use the mystical weasle words?

"And Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM? Source please. And not just a graph of prices going down. A source that shows prices are going down due to technological improvements. Correlation is not causation. Source please."
If you want sources for basic knowledge in a field, you're rather ignorant. But here you go: Agricultural productivity at wikipedia. "Changes in TFP are usually attributed to technological improvements[...] As farms become more productive, the wages earned by those who work in agriculture increase. At the same time, food prices decrease and food supplies become more stable." The wikipedia Green Revolution article has a similar statement, though it is unsourced.

"“claque”? If you really meant “an organized body of professional applauders” (as Wikipedia defines it), this is just absurd."
Ah weasle words again: "If you really meant". However, if Skeptico had the competence to use a real dictionary, it would be obvious that I meant another, more common, and modern usage: a group of fawning admirers. It amazes me when people seem to go out of their way to reinterpret plain statements by selecting blatantly inappropriate definitions.

“why would farmers continue to pay for GM seeds if doing so reduced their overall profits and/or increases their debt? If GM makes them more competitive then they must be better off (ie not reduced profits) even after the cost of the GM seeds.”
Still whining, because you haven't enough understanding of the field to create a simple hypothetical example? I'll take pity on you and give you one.

Assume two farmers, A and B, both of whom have identical farms and grow identical traditional crops. Both net $50K/year.

Farmer B switches to GM seed, which gives him a lower cost of production (we'll assume that he produces the same yield, though that's not necessary.) The lower cost of production comes from less use of fuel that offsets the higher cost of seed. Now, A makes $50K, and B makes (lets say) $70K. Oooo, looks like GM is a good thing and doesn't hurt farmer A!

But wait! Farmer B has shown that this land can be more profitable. That means that the value of the land goes up, which means that the rent or taxes or both go up. No matter how little they go up, farmer A is worse off. The GM seed company observes the profitability, and as a monopoly, raises its price to consume that new profit. Indeed, the seed company can raise the price until farmer B makes as little as farmer A, because B's alternative is to do the same as A and make as little. Now both farmers are worse off. But because of the stickyness of land prices and long terms of loans, mortgages, and property tax rates, the lower earnings can stick.

It gets worse. Because there seems to be new profitability due to GM, more farmers plant more acres to GM and the supply increases. Pushing down the price of the crop, and reducing profitability still further for A and B.

All of these changes are more or less independent from each other, and not coordinated by government or markets.

In addition, there can be a prisoner's dilemma sort of race among farmers to be the first adopters of newly profitable technologies. The payoff if all adopt can be much lower than the payoff if all refrain. But because the payoff for a defector who adopts alone is highest, and the payoff for the sucker is lowest of all, there's no end to the defection.

Now this is a hypothetical example that answers Skeptico's questions. Very similar issues are the bread and butter of agricultural economics. The basic facts of US agriculture are very difficult to explain without such models: the enormous reduction of family farms, the enormous reduction of profitability of farms for families, the rapidity of adoption of technological change, and the increasing corporate ownership of farms. I'd also note that I assumed the GM changes didn't increase yield, but many have. Increased production can have nonlinear effects on prices and thus profits.

I don't expect you folks to believe this: doubtless some of you will be stupid enough to trot out equilibristic economics arguments for a subject that is famously not so. But once you've got as complicated a system as this one, simplistic ahistorical arguments like Skeptico's just aren't convincing.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The basis of skeptical argument.

Very few arguments are explicitly syllogistic: it is seldom that assumptions. inferences, and conclusions are all stated together in plain view. Consequently, most arguments rely heavily on background information and assumptions (facts, history, models, biases, etc.) that are not likely to be made explicit.

If one party to a discussion about some field is lacking the necessary background information and assumptions, they are unlikely to be able to make correct arguments. They will have omitted or incorrect assumptions. No matter how explicitly syllogistic such an argument seems to be, it is fallacious if an assumption (present or omitted) is incorrect. This is why expertise and authority is considered important to an argument. Without expertise, like a stopped clock you might sometimes be right, but much of the time you will be wrong.

So what does it mean when one person professes subject expertise in an argument and the other has no such expertise? Is that an invalid argument from authority? It could mean several things. It could mean "my analysis is based on better background information, so check the other guy's more carefully". No fallacy there. It could mean "if you need a heuristic clue as to who might be right, this is a defeasible shortcut." This is an informal fallacy of logic, but a very practical heuristic method of reasoning with non-monotonic logic. (See my Distrust in logic article.) Or it could mean I am right because I am an authority", in which case it is the informal fallacy argument from authority. Perhaps it could mean other things as well. Only that third option is the argument from authority, IMHO. The other two are USEFUL, perhaps more useful than classical logic as I explain in my article.

While arguing with Skeptico, I pointed out the differences between our expertise, and a number of his supporters have accused me of the argument from authority. To logically make their case, they would need to exclude the other possibilities. But what they really are doing is applying a weak form of defeasible logic: "he has sinned (never mind that we all are sinners, and don't you dare measure how egregiously or frequently we sin.)"

Jimmy_Blue, to his credit, found an excellent set of links that provide substantial background for this debate. Background that I assumed from long experience, which Skeptico plainly lacked. Background that confirms pretty much all the points I made in my initial response to Skeptico: Response to Skeptico: Must Pay for GM Seeds? I'll add one more reference, On the adoption of genetically modified seeds in developing countries... which confirms my claims about farm productivity increases and GM seed monopoly. "...these technologies can bring about major cost savings in pest control and reduce negative environmental externalities through reductions in the use of toxic pesticides. Studies by Qaim and Zilberman (2003) and Thirtle et al. (2003) reveal that GM crops can also increase yields in situations where pesticides are underused."

Jimmy_Blue writes:

Mike Huben I think makes a relevant point that does appear to be a fairly reasonable answer to Skeptico's question - that farmers must buy GM seed in order to remain competitve because of the various pressures on farmers resulting in particular from technological advances reducing commodity prices. Combine this with the possibility of monopolistic supply of GM seed, and economic pressures could result in a stark choice - buy GM seed or don't farm anymore.

The must comes from the fact that if a farmer wanted to stay a farmer, they would have to buy GM seed to remain competitive with other farmers - particularly the large corporate ones. Almost a compulsion by choice if you will.

Correct me if I am wrong in this summation.

Spot on. In my book, Jimmy_Blue is an excellent life-long student: not because he agreed with me, but because he constructively resolved a controversy with his own directed research, and shared the results. He avoided the mistake of confirmation bias (if he started with Skeptico's position), which often afflicts us skeptics just like ordinary people. I can get really pompous here and declare that was one of my motives, to goad people into learning for themselves, but it's obvious to me that Jimmy_Blue doesn't need to be taught by me. My hat's off to you!

Jimmy_Blue also spends a lot of his response fisking my style of argument, rather than the content. I can live with that. I've adopted an "afflict the comfortable" style, which I find handy for ridiculing pompous bullshitters (and Skeptico is one in this political subject. He's merely pompous in more scientific subjects.) Jimmy_Blue concludes "your argument does come across as probably valid but expressed by a total tosser" Probably valid: that's a much better judgement than I expected from any of Skeptico's supporters -- thank you Jimmy_Blue. Am I a "total tosser"? Well, since Jimmy_Blue spends his response showing how I do the same obnoxious things Skeptico does, shall I infer that he also thinks Skeptico is a "total tosser"? I can live with that: that's one of the things I set out to demonstrate.

A last couple of points about Skeptico's apparent ignorance of the subject that it would be good to clarify.

First, Skeptico and I have not been as clear (in our terminology) as we should have been about productivity of GM crops. Skeptico is correct that GM crops generally do not increase YIELD PER ACRE, which is one measure of productivity. But that measure is too narrow for this discussion, as anybody with a background in agricultural economics should know. The normal meaning of the word productivity in agricultural economics is yield divided by total costs of production, which include land, labor, and capital. GM crops have been designed to increase that latter form of productivity, and there is substantial evidence that they do (as documented in my additional reference.) That latter form of technologically-driven productivity is why farmers MUST buy GM seed or go bankrupt.

Skeptico's statement "There are no low food prices. Don’t you follow the news – they’re at record highs." is just wrong. As anybody at all familiar with agriculture knows, the prices of agricultural commodities have (long term) been declining for many decades. Jimmy_Blue's sources affirm that. Skeptico said something very stupid, based on short-term price information and his own ignorance. Unless you want to believe that he was intending to mislead us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Skeptical infallibility

A little bit of knowledge can be laughable. We're all familiar with the newbie who, having learned of informal fallacies of argument, denies true claims because they are backed by arguments that could be incorrect due to their form. If I say that I see the sky is blue, the newbie squeals "argument from authority!" And then there's the guy who's taken freshman microeconomics who knows that the world runs by markets, and the whole world should be understood by perfect market assumptions. A close relation is the victim of "Atlas Shrugged". And most laughable of all, the religious/creationist zealot who has discovered the power of parroting arguments to bamboozle the unprepared. These people all get drunk on the "power" these learnings give them to argue with others less prepared.

The secular counterpart to the religious/creationist zealot is the dogmatic skeptic. (See Denialism for corporate-sponsored examples.) Armed with some preferred extreme position, having out-argued a few particularly stupid opponents by reciting arguments (which are sometimes good, unlike religious/creationist arguments), this sort of skeptic seems to think he is infallible in his pronouncements. The problem is when this sort of skeptic stumbles upon an argument he's not familiar with and attempts to respond.

The syndrome is a familiar one to those who argue with the religious. Some common responses are to:

(1) misconstrue the argument as one he can parrot a response to
(2) attribute strong emotions to the opponent while displaying them himself (psychological projection)
(3) attempt some combination of stand on dignity/sneering
(4) blame his mistakes on the other person's poor writing
(5) conveniently ignore clear refutations and throw out random factoids as if they adequately responded to a point
(6) deny clear misbehavior
(7) attempt to shift the burden of proof
(8) stubbornly insist on false dichotomies when presented with third options
(9) and proclaim himself the winner.

All these are ways of dealing with the harsh, ego-deflating failure to make a good argument, a form of self-delusion. Spaghetti forbid that the dogmatic skeptic should actually question whether his argument was competent, whether he really knows enough to make a good response, whether he has taken a correct position. He is righteous! The opponent must be wrong! He must be infallible!

Let's look at how Skeptico has responded to me for an example. These correspond to the 9 points above.

(1) Skeptico rewrote my clear statement, and now claims that he didn't understand it: how could he rewrite it accurately if he didn't understand it? He should make up his mind. I wrote "Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM." Perhaps it is too difficult for him to understand that other technological improvements have been reducing commodity prices since the inventions of the horse collar, steam engine, reaper, hybrid seed, etc. Having rewritten it, he made a specific (partly wrong) claim for GM seed, which did not address my more general statement.

(2) Skeptico writes: "angry drivel", "idiocy", "so-called arguments", "what the hell did you mean", "babbling", "Oh give me a break", "an arrogant, angry jerk". Who's displaying angry emotions here? Nor is this the first interchange where he's done this. "Perhaps if you calmed down a bit before you pushed post…" I notice that I thought on my response for 5 days, whereas his went up in two hours or less. Who's not calm?

(3) Let's see: for sneering we have "Wow – pretty desperate tactics. I’ll ignore most of your idiocy...". For stand on dignity, we have "You’re one to lecture about humility. You come across as an arrogant, angry jerk." Somebody needs to tell him the little secret that when you use these in combination, they add up to unconvincing.

(4) "If I misunderstood something you wrote, that would be your fault for being a crappy writer." Could there be a better example of how Skeptico cannot be at fault, because he must be infallible?

(5) When I was pointing out that soybean prices had been falling for roughly the last 25 years (in response to his irrelevant point that they were up this year), he responds that "GM has only been planted for ten. Kind of ruins your complete argument, doesn’t it?" This too is irrelevant.

(6) "I made no strawmen." A clear denial of his rewriting what I posted.

(7) Skeptico wrote "I’m sure it’s true that GM hasn’t (yet) resulted in significantly higher productivity or lower costs." When I pointed out a specific sales pitch that contradicted him and asked him for his source, he turns around and asks me for mine. No response to the request for his own source.

(8) Skeptico seem incapable of realizing more than a dichotomy when discussing why farmers oppose GM. He states the choices as (a) buy or (b) don't buy. But it is obvious that there are at least 3: (a) buy from a monopolist or (b) don't buy from a monopolist or (c) don't allow a monopolistic entry into the market.

(9) And here's the funniest one of all. Skeptico proclaims himself the winner of the debate! "You need to learn not only the humility that you hilariously think I need, you also need to develop a coherent argument and learn how to write it down. Because you haven’t even come close to making your case so far." Ooo, he's qualified to judge me and my argument, despite the fact that he has no visible qualifications at all. And he expects us to believe him. Because he's got to be infallible, no doubt.

We skeptics are not infallible, and when we argue with each other, we cannot make the presumptions we make when arguing with the dogmatic. Dogmatic responses of our own are adequate for run-of-the-mill purposes so frequently that some skeptics seem to feel they must be infallible, and forget the critical reading and thinking skills that are essential to creating new, customized arguments.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Response to Skeptico: Must Pay for GM Seeds?

At Skeptico's blog, he has a post: Must Pay for GM Seeds?

I read this post and despair at the smug confidence of nerds who probably never worked on a farm or studied agricultural economics.

Historically (and presently), farmers have been driven off the land, resulting in consolidation and eventual corporate ownership of farmland. There is a conflict between these pressures and the farmer's own ideas of the way they'd like to live and work. In most cultures, a farm represented sufficient resources and food security to raise a family, with surplus for markets. In the US, this was the basis of the Jeffersonian economic policy (which had the added benefit of omitting landlords.)

Forcing farmers off the land has been done directly (via enclosure acts) and indirectly by taxation and market pressures leading to foreclosure/bankruptcy. Farmers are forced to enter the market system to pay taxes. There, they must compete with other farmers in production of commodities. The prices of commodities are continually pushed downwards by increasing productivity of capital-intensive technology.

Farmers have always disliked this vise of economic pressure, and wished for freedom to simply farm and raise their families. Many years ago, they resented hybrid seed because it increased the pressures: if you didn't buy it, you couldn't survive at the now-lowered price of the commodity and you had to buy it year after year because it didn't come true from seed. That meant you had to finance the seed and its increased fertilizer, which made you more prone to bankruptcy in a bad year. The one good thing about hybrid seed was that there WAS competition, because the technology was developed and dispersed by state and federal research without patents. Indeed, when you look at Plant Patent law, it excludes patents on plants propagated by seed partly to keep seed prices low.

GM seed is generally patented. Most GM seed at this time is a monopoly: there's very little competition. And when you get a monopoly in a chain of production, generally the monopolistic link is able to profit at the expense of most of the other links by being a price maker. This means farmers make less profit, even as they are producing more. In addition, the greater investment for the seed, herbicide, and fertilizer for the crop makes farming even riskier. Corporations owning dispersed and varied farmlands can self-insure, but it is costly and difficult for small farmers. This tends to drive more land out of the hands of farmers and into the hands of agribusiness.

GM seed is only the latest of many technological pressures on farmers, but perhaps the most monopolistic pressure since the railroad shipping and grain elevator monopolies.

Now that I've given you a little background, let's look at Skeptico's statements again.

"Note the wording, farmers must pay for GM seeds year after year, rather than save seeds. Must. Apparently they have no choice. Which is funny, because I didn’t think that farmers were compelled to use GM seeds."

Yes, they are compelled by the stark choice of GM or bankruptcy. Commodity prices drop due to technological improvements such as GM. Unless their productivity can keep up, they will go bankrupt.

"But I’m willing to accept I might be missing something here, so please tell me exactly what I am missing – why would farmers continue to pay for GM seeds if doing so reduced their overall profits and/or increases their debt?"

Does that answer your question? Saving seeds would reduce their income because commodity prices drop. And debt (an investment) is not so much a problem as the uncertainty (risk) that a crop may fail and thus bankrupt the farmer. It's a racheting process that has been driving farmers off the land for more than a century in the US, and that is going on worldwide today.

So the farmer's opposition to GM seed comes partly from this latest of a long set of severe, inescapable pressures. They feel like they're in a nightmarish, involuntary game of musical chairs: every round, more farmers are driven out of their independent way of life. The solution would have to be a systemic solution, not just prohibition of GM seed. All the latter would do is buy some time. In Europe and Japan, they've adopted both systematic and anti-GM solutions to protect their farmers.

Destruction of crop genetic diversity is also a side effect of a capitalist system of industrialization of agriculture, and not specific to GM. GM is merely the latest competition with heirlooms, landraces and other reservoirs of genetic diversity.

The major problem that I perceive with GM is safety. Modern commodification of food conceals sources while ensuring widespread exposure. Remember the recent melamine contamination of pet food? That was traced quickly because it killed quickly. Say that some GM food had a thalidomide-like effect, that took close to a year to show? And that it was present in a widespread food such as soy or wheat? Or that it had an even slower to detect hormonal or carcinogenic effect? Do we really want to test GM foods on entire populations first? How costly would it be to expose the entire population to some unforseen harm that, say, caused improper development in children due to hormonal interference? How much testing should GM foods undergo before they are tested on the population at large? This question makes the European and Japanese anti-GM positions look much more reasonable.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Madness of King Leonard

The Madness of King Leonard

Leonard Peikoff appears on Bill O'Reilly's show and rants so appallingly that O'Reilly looks sensible in comparison.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Conservative Nanny State

The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer

The full text of Dean Baker's book. Not aimed at libertarians, but points out many things libertarians are confused about and ought to oppose by both libertarian and progressive standards.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Defending Rachel Carson: the last word

Defending Rachel Carson: the last word

John Quiggin points out the extreme gullibility of the right wing and libertarian blogosphere for public relations ploys initiated by tobacco companies. The PR firms exploit the obvious confirmation biases of these ideologues. Their goal is to discredit opponents of tobacco such as the World Health Organization by falsely accusing them of responsibility for malaria deaths.

Libertarians and global warming

Libertarians and global warming

John Quiggan analyzes the bizarre libertarian reactions to global warming.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement

Thoughts On Steven M. Teles, "The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement"

Orin Kerr, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, reviews the new book, and highlights the origins of the libertarian George Mason University Law School.

The book has been added to my bibliography and the index for George Mason University.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Ron Paul Is Crazy

Ron Paul Is Crazy
A YouTube video from WebPundit points out why Ron Paul is an unrealistic candidate: because he offends almost everybody in one way or another.

In the Topical Issues category of the main page.

As Ron Paul resumes his lowly status as false-flag Republican congressman and thus falls off the election radar, I'll move the links about him to a separate index and off the main page.

Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek

Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek
Outlines Hayek's false assumptions, and points out problems of market capitalist economic miscalculation.

Libertarians frequently resort to the "socialist calculation problem" as a blanket denial that socialism could work well. Yet we are surrounded with counterexamples, such as the decentralized socialist public school system, or highly centralized capitalist enterprises such as WalMart. This critique helps us understand why Hayek's arguments should be considered little better than propaganda now.

Placed in the Austrian Economics index.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Trade and inequality: The role of economists

Trade and inequality: The role of economists

Dean Baker faults economists for exaggerating benefits of trade, and dishonestly ignoring or downplaying the distributional consequences: who wins and who loses. At the post-autistic economics network.

Placed in the Criticisms of Neoliberalism, Capitalism, and Free Markets index.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain example

Tyler Cowen has written about Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain example over at Marginal Revolution. It's interesting that in 100+ replies, nobody seems to realize the fallacious assumption Nozick makes.

Nozick assumes that claims on Chamberlain's income come from "a third party who had no claim of justice on any holding of the others before the transfer". (ASU p.162) But in the real world, third parties DO have just claims before transfers: they are very common. For example, if Chamberlain had been paying alimony to a wife (he never married), or had faced civil judgements for child support. If the owners of the basketball court or the other players insisted that Wilt be a paid member of the player's union if he wants to perform on that court or with those players. Wilt will not get rich by himself: he needs the cooperation of other people and they will require something for that cooperation.

A social contract such as citizenship is just such a pre-existing claim of justice: Chamberlain was a citizen obligated to obey laws, including laws on taxation. Libertarians frequently whine that citizenship is not voluntary, but that's not true: you can renounce citizenship and/or assume citizenship in other nations. Most US citizens have ancestors who did just that.

All of Nozick's major arguments rely on fallacious assumptions or illusions of logic. For example, the idea that liberty upsets patterns EXCEPT NOZICK'S IDEA OF HISTORICAL JUSTICE. Nozick simply distracts from the fact that property restricts the liberty of others, and that it is only by continuous interference with liberty by very strong coercion that the pattern of property is maintained. Without that continuous coercion, people would assert their liberty to use whatever they wanted.

Nozick's "Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is in itself just" can fail because of many implied requirements. Perfection of the original situation and the steps is required. Just initial situations are required (an impracticality.) And a demonstration of perfect justice-maintainance of the steps is required: a step may be just without maintaining justice. (This is a big problem: he's making an argument that only looks like mathematical induction without showing the critical step.) For example, if it is just to take a seat on a bus when there is no elderly person present, and it is just for an elderly person to enter the bus after that, but it is not just to remain in the seat after the elderly person has entered. But worse, in real life we can't ever have perfect justice of steps or starting situations. So the question is whether the steps move us closer or further from justice, and where an equilibrium will be reached (if one exists.) The Nozick statement has an implied binary logic model which real life doesn't match. Nozick doesn't begin to address a quantitative model of justice whereby we can state that any one situation is more just than another. Instead, he relies on the kind of "gut feelings" Steven Colbert ridicules so well with his persona.

The rest of Tyler's post is silly: he makes assumptions such as "no one should be forced to part with more than a certain percentage of his or her income". What next, Tyler, going to set the price of gold? Just as Tyler would think the price of gold should be set by a public, social decision-making process (a market), so the taxation rate should be set by another public, social decision-making process (a government.)

But I suspect the silliness is purposeful: to focus attention to the question of what rate is just, and thus slide in the propagandistic framing and assumptions without real discussion. Propaganda works by repetition, and Tyler is making his contribution to the right wing echo chamber. That, and entertaining his claque.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Shermer's The Mind of The Market

Shermer's The Mind of The Market

Libertarian Tim Sandefur finds both Shermer's libertarianism and skepticism disappointing and unconvincing.

Added to the Reviews Of Books Related To Libertarianism index.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What Makes a Miracle: Some myths about the rise of China and India

What Makes a Miracle: Some myths about the rise of China and India

Pranab Bardhan's Boston Review article debunks claims that China and India's economic development is solely due to capitalism: communism, democracy and socialism have also played major parts.

Added to the Government And Economics index.

Shleifer the (Counter-)Revolutionary

Shleifer the (Counter-)Revolutionary

Dani Rodrik ridicules Andrei Shleifer's "Age of Milton Friedman" triumphalism, pointing out how the evidence is misused.

Added to the Milton Friedman index.

Some Capital-Theoretic Fallacies of Austrian Economics

Some Capital-Theoretic Fallacies of Austrian Economics

Robert Vienneau attacks assumptions of Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Highly technical.

Added to the Austrian Economics index.

CFP's Laffer Curve Video

CFP's Laffer Curve Video

Law Professor Linda Beale debunks the latest Laffer Curve propaganda video from the "Center for Freedom and Prosperity" and CATO's Dan Mitchell.

Added to the CATO and Taxation indexes.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Ron Paul's record in Congress

Ron Paul's record in Congress

Ron Paul's bizarre track record as a congressman, particularly those bills he sponsored or co-sponsored.

Thanks to loyal reader Matt Golowenski for the lead to this article at Orcinus.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Market Failures In Everything: US Medical Care

Another in the continuing series mocking the triumphalist "Markets In Everything" series at Marginal Revolution.

Market-Based Failure — A Second Opinion on U.S. Health Care Costs
Robert Kuttner's brief editorial in the New England Journal Of Medicine, pointing out the obvious reasons why single payer universal health care would cost less than the current market-based system..

Thursday, February 07, 2008

FAQ: Ron Paul and his Racist Newsletter

FAQ: Ron Paul and his Racist Newsletter

Ron Lawl provides a convenient FAQ rebutting the myriad excuses made for Ron Paul's longstanding activities with racists. Part of The Ron Paul Survival Report blog.

Added to the Topical Issues category in the main index of Critiques Of Libertarianism

Thanks to corespondent LoonyRonPaul for this suggestion!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Libertarian Troll Bingo

Libertarian Troll Bingo
See which libertarian commenter scores bingo first in your favorite blog!

Thanks to James M. Jensen II for the pointer. Added to the Humor, Satire, and Quotations index.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Skepticism and Freedom will not save libertarianism

John, in comments of the previous post, write:
... skepticism is really a bedrock principle of serious libertarian scholarship. A good suggestion would be to get out of the sandbox and read Richard Epstein's "Skepticism and Freedom."

The positivist, pragmatist, consequentialist, law and economics libertarians such as Posner, Epstein, the Friedmans, etc. have a good, flexible model of economics of legal issues. But the problem is the empirical content needed to make decisions (see Epstein quote below.) As soon as you claim to know the empirical content needed, you can be doubted on Hayekian grounds. Those guys substitute their personal authority for the kind of detailed and dispersed information that Hayek attributes to the market. They might as well be setting prices based on their personal authority. Legislative solutions might not be as good as markets, but they probably aggregate information better than these individual authorities.

What I really liked in Epstein's "Skepticism and Freedom" was this bit:
When you are young in this world, you believe that the class of deductive truths about social matters is larger than it turns out to be. The great attraction of libertarian thought lay in its deductive power. The hope was that you could axiomatize the system and sort of render social problems amenable to a set of principles that yielded necessary or deductive truths. That vision certainly fired my early academic life... Essentially, as I have gotten older and maybe a little bit wiser -- which why that 30 years really start to matter -- I have discovered, to my infinite regret, that most of the serious debates over the basic principles of any political order have an irreducible empirical content.

In that one short paragraph, he invalidates most libertarian writings, including quite a lot of his own.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Review Of Michael Shermer's The Mind Of The Market

Review Of Michael Shermer's The Mind Of The Market
Skeptics who love Shermer for his skepticism have difficulty with Shermer's libertarianism. Dan Schneider epitomizes this love/hate relationship.

This has been added to the reviews index. I'd welcome pointers to other reviews by critics.

Schneider's review suffers greviously from some of the same faults he finds in Shermer. Most obviously, he says Shermer's book is poorly edited: it is obvious to me that Schneider's review is extremely poorly edited.

That said, when I eventually read Shermer's book, I expect to agree with some of Schneider's points. I like Shermer's skepticism, but with respect to his libertarianism, I'd quote him: "Smart people believe in weird things because they are very good at defending positions they arrived at through non-smart reasons."