Eugene Linden
home   |   contact info   |   biography   |   publications   |   radio/tv   |   musings   |   short takes   

Lastest Musing

A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

continue

Featured Book

The Ragged Edge of the World
Buy from Amazon

more info

Articles by Category
endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
fragging

Books

Winds of Change
Buy from Amazon

more info
Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
more info


The Future In Plain Sight
more info


The Parrot's Lament
more info


Silent Partners
more info


Affluence and Discontent
more info


The Alms Race
more info


Apes, Men, & Language
more info

THE CRISES THAT DARE NOT SPEAK THEIR NAMES


Thursday May 15, 2014

[I'm going to continue to bang this drum until I get it right! This appeared in The Daily Beast]

In the first quarter of 2014, the economic impact of extreme weather related to climate change, combined with the inherent weakness of an economy suffering through a depression, produced a preliminary estimate of nearly no economic growth. This stark portrayal is a far cry from how the 0.1% GDP growth of the quarter has been presented. Rather, the narrative has gone something like this: Weather-related disruptions weighed upon business investment and consumer spending as the weak recovery continued.

Thus we continue to endure the two most consequential events of the recent decade without acknowledging either for what they are.

In the case of climate change, this timidity is understandable as change comes as weather and there will never be one clear event that signals indisputably that we’ve entered the climate rapids. Fifty years from now, however, odds are that historians will mark the first decade of this new millennium as the point at which global warming became undeniable, particularly in its economic impacts.

Similarly, future economic historians will likely mark the financial crash of 2008 as the beginning of a depression (it would be nice if they would come back in time and told us when it will end). Here too, it is understandable because there is such a high noise-to-signal ratio amid an incessant drumbeat of often conflicting economic data and so many false starts that it is extremely difficult to define a depression except in retrospect.

Part of the problem is that definitions of depression abound (the concept is so nebulous that the National Bureau of Economic Research, which officially calls recessions, demurs on the question of calling depressions). The description of depression that fits the present situation is a sustained period in which economic output falls substantially below an economy’s potential. Now five years into our “recovery” the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy this year will still fall short of its potential output by $723 billion (and this gap comes against figures for potential output that have been steadily marked down by the CBO since 2008, essentially lowering the bar).

Recognizing that things have truly changed has always been difficult for those living through inflection points in history. Those deepest inside the U.S. government and the intelligence community in the late 1980s were among the last to acknowledge that the Cold War was really over as the Soviet Union unraveled. “The Great Depression” as a proper noun only came into popular use in the 1950s, long after the event was over. As the economy bounced around in the mid-1930s, there were many premature calls that the crisis had ended, including one by President Roosevelt in 1936, after three years of impressive recovery, but just before a vicious new recession hit, and unemployment rose to new highs.

This blindness is deeply embedded in human nature. Such is our commitment to the world view we forge during our formative years that often we can’t see what is literally staring us in the face. Jerome Brumer, father of gestalt psychology, demonstrated this in a celebrated experiment in which he showed people a deck of cards salted with the wrong colors for different suits such as a red ace of spades. When the cards were turned over, most people saw them as normal. Only when they could linger for long periods would they see that something was amiss, but even then some people could not put their finger on what was wrong.

Does it matter whether and when we put a label on an era? Yes, greatly. Our reticence to state the obvious but unproven may be understandable, and even prudent, but it is not helpful. Recognizing that the changing climate carries with it harsh economic consequences might spur action to limit the harm. The Obama administration just did its part releasing a draft assessment of climate change asserting that it is already hurting Americans. Still, our current posture that global warming is a nebulous, far-off problem largely explains our complacency about a threat that has in the past been a civilization-killer.

Similarly, while economists will argue over whether the present period of near zero growth and stretched household finances is a depression long after the economy really does recover, acknowledging that for all but a tiny group of Americans the economy is in depression would do a world of good. For one thing, there might be less push for deficit reduction and more pressure for programs that might improve the incomes of ordinary Americans. One school of thought holds that FDR’s false belief in 1936 that the depression was over led his administration to tighten credit, pushing the fragile economy back into recession.

So, let’s acknowledge the obvious. The upside is that we might muster the political will to develop policies that match reality. Do we want those yet unborn historians (who are going to be royally annoyed about the world we bequeath them anyway) wondering how it was that we ignored what was staring us in the face?

contact Eugene Linden

Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



read more
  designed and maintained by g r a v i t y s w i t c h , i n c .
Eugene Linden. all rights reserved.