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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...

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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OUR CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES


Saturday April 14, 2018

            The Darwin Award confers mock recognition on individuals killed by their own stupidity, thereby improving the gene pool by removing themselves from it. If there existed such an award at the national level, the U.S. of today would be a lock to win. Put aside ideology and step back from the drumbeat of constant crises that has characterized the Trump Presidency, and the sheer stupidity of our current posture on major issues comes into focus, along with a big question: How could a superpower with an incomparable network of universities, scientific institutions, and think tanks be so colossally dumb when it comes to government policy?  Simple answer; that’s the path we’ve chosen.

            Let’s look at a few of the particulars.

            Gun Violence:  We have roughly the same crime rate as other industrial countries, but we’re the most trigger-happy developed nation on earth with more than 10 times the rate of gun-related deaths as does Australia and Germany, 20 times the rate of gun deaths as Spain, 50 times that of the United Kingdom, and an infinitely greater rate than Japan and South Korea, which really don’t have statistically significant, gun-related deaths at all. Yet, the Trump’s first response to the Parkland slaughter is that we need more guns, with the current push being to arm teachers in schools. Consider the counterfactual: If more guns were the solution, wouldn’t all those other developed nations that have vastly fewer guns and strict gun control laws be collapsing amid rampant killings?   

            Climate Change: After 2017’s $307 billion dollars in losses from hurricanes, drought-related wildfires and other severe weather, one might think that the federal government would want to understand whether a warming world might increase the risk of more such events. One would be wrong. Instead, the administration has been stripping all mention of climate change from its publications and policies, and installing people who deny the threat in key positions. And given those losses, wouldn’t governments at all level want to update flood zone maps to take in the threat of rising sea levels and more intense storms? Apparently not; there’s active opposition to updating the maps at all levels of government, all but guaranteeing that future storms will produce even more losses for taxpayers (because private insurers will update their own loss projections and pull out of vulnerable areas). Dumb? As Trump often says, “you tell me.”

            Finance and the Economy: After 2008’s near death experience for the U.S. financial system, the Congress enacted Dodd-Frank, with rules limiting risk taking by large financial institutions. Before that, risk-taking in the opaque world of derivatives had been involved the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, as well as in the fall of the energy trading giant Enron. Now, Congress apparently feels that bankers will never again try to game the system, because there is a bi-partisan effort to roll back regulations on banks with under $250 billion in assets (up from the current $50 billion threshold), a move that would deregulate lenders as large as some of the worst actors in the housing bubble collapse. Not content to unleash the banks, Congress and administration are also dismantling the Consumer Protection Bureau, which was set up to protect people from the predatory practices rampant before the financial crisis.

            The Fourth Estate: Journalists in this country have already been marginalized by the rise of free digital news and the spread of social media. Now the Trump administration has been attacking the very concept of a free press with its dismissal of any reporting it doesn’t like as “fake news.”  At a time when politicians routinely lie, and big corporations have been freed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision to devote massive efforts to influencing public opinion, access to independent, credible reporting becomes the last check on the abuse of power and corruption. The campaign to discredit this vital backstop may be the most short sighted Trump initiative of all -- just ask the citizens of North Korea, Iran, or Russia what are their checks on power in countries without a free press?

            Diplomacy: With ambassadorships in crucial posts such as Riyadh and Seoul still waiting to be filled and senior positions at the State Department left vacant, the Trump administration seems to believe that diplomacy does not require diplomats, particularly when we have a lot of nuclear weapons, and a President willing to use them. With a growing number of unstable nations trying to join the nuclear club, this approach to foreign policy seems like a promising fast track for the U.S. to win a collective Darwin Award, dragging the rest of the world to the podium along with us.

           And so it goes: Trump looks back to the days of Herbert Hoover in his trade policy; the Energy Department is busy trying to revitalize coal burning as the rest of the world pushes full throttle towards the transition away from fossil fuels. We’re looking back, while others look forward. It’s as though the loud, ignorant bully in the back of the classroom has come to the front, shoved aside the teacher and taken over the curriculum.

            We have only ourselves to blame. Long before Trump won in 2016, voter disengagement abetted the election of governors and state legislators who pandered to the more motivated extremes, and, once in power, who then gerrymandered districts to solidify their grip. We started down the path of stupid years ago. If we want to change direction, voters need to rouse from their apathy lest, as the Chinese proverb holds, we end up where we’re headed. If, however, the above policies represent who we truly are; we deserve what we reap.

           

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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.



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