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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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IS OUR BRAND OF CAPITALISM MAKING US STUPID


Tuesday August 30, 2011

 

Eugene Linden


           How can a society that contains so much individual brilliance act so collectively dumb? Does it matter that we know that there is a cliff ahead if we still go racing off the edge?  The Wikileaks publication of State Department emails demonstrated that there is tremendous expertise at the ground level in foreign policy.  That didn’t stop us from charging into what has been called the “most feckless” war in American history. The key to our success as a species has been the development of communication and cognitive skills that enable us to leverage our collective intelligence so that a group is vastly smarter than an individual.  In recent years, that seems to have gone into reverse. While individual brilliance abounds, collective stupidity prevails.

Consider a few recent examples:

The Ongoing Financial Crisis:

            The most devastating financial crisis since the Great Depression followed the dismantling of reforms put in place during and after the 1930s to prevent institutions from bringing about the very financial collapse we just experienced. While there were many tributaries to the meltdown, a common element was a system of incentives that was optimized to reward those who made the biggest bets. Penalties for failure were gradually stripped away, and the costs dumped on taxpayers. Does anyone think that the Dodd-Frank package of financial regulation package signed into law by President Obama has eliminated these incentives, or that if it turns out that new regulations actually impede financial institution profits that they will stay in place?

Given that the crisis wiped out $13 trillion in national wealth and has brought much of the middle class to the brink of insolvency, one would think that voters, who vastly outnumber the rich, would insist on enacting a robust regulatory framework. One would be wrong.
     
And now, carrying forward its proud tradition of doing the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time, Congress just forced through, and the President signed into law, a series of spending cuts in return for allowing the US government to pay bills it had already incurred. This will shrink government spending even as the economy slows, removing any doubt that we will slip back into recession and unemployment will worsen. Congress and the president have thus exactly repeated the mistake of FDR, who agreed to cuts in 1937 that plunged the US back into the Great Depression.


The Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

            The Gulf of Mexico oil spill of 2010, the most catastrophic environmental event in American history, directly followed from the neutering of regulations, safety mechanisms, and procedures put in place after earlier spills such as the Ixtoc Spill of 1979, and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.  Does anyone seriously believe that new regulations that arise from this disaster won’t also be neutered?  We need oil, and the easy-to-find oil is gone so we need to drill in the most inaccessible, politically hostile, and/or environmentally vulnerable places on the planet.

Climate Change:

            Now here’s a problem perfectly designed for a species with an abilitiy to anticipate and avoid disaster! The science of the greenhouse effect that underlies concerns that emissions of C02 are changing climate is uncontroversial. There is overwhelming agreement among climate scientists that human-sourced emissions, largely traced to the use of fossil fuels, are already warming the planet; climate historians have vividly documented how civilizations are vulnerable to climate change, and since the 1980s, policy-makers have been discussing ways to reduce emissions.
        
So what has the U.S. done to avert the threat? Nothing! Despite 30 years of verbiage and negotiations, the recession has done more to limit U.S. emissions than anything we have done legislatively. The pattern for species ranging from fruit flies to elephants, and, yes, humans, has been for numbers to explode when the climate is favorable and plummet when it turns hostile. Our numbers have exploded in the climatically benign years since the end of the last Ice Age. Will it be different this time if climate turns hostile?

A Global Pandemic of Willful Blindness

            America has no monopoly on collective dumbness – after all Japan, perhaps the most rational nation on the planet, saw fit to site nuclear power plants in areas vulnerable to both earthquakes and tsunamis, and Europe continues to pile blunder upon blunder as it tries and fails to contain its own financial crisis. Time and again the best and brightest have alerted society to looming problems, but a persistent pattern has been to ignore the warnings, ridicule the experts, and suffer the consequences.

The pathetic refrain of recent years  -- “nobody saw this coming” –is always a self-serving lie.  Something is making us stupid.  My candidate is the way we practice capitalism, specifically the skewed incentives that promote hyper-focus on short-term gains, while leaving us effectively blind to long-term threats.
      
In each case cited above, actions to head off a threat were perceived to impinge on present profits, and, in modern market economies, we consistently make the decision that we’d rather head off a cliff in the future than limit the gains of those with access to the levers of power. In all these cases, economic interests ultimately control the lawmakers.  We’ve created a system that leaves us constantly surprised by the obvious.
          
I’m certainly not arguing for central planning – the failed communist states constitute a monument to collective stupidity. But there is a middle ground. Consider Canada, the friendly giant to the north, which seems to be able to regulate without suffocating innovation. Can this be fixed in the U.S.? Sure! Will it be fixed? Probably not, at least, not without shock therapy far worse than what we have recently endured, and that’s exactly what we are rocketing towards right now.

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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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