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.