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March 07 2012

14:35

Can Geeks Defeat Lies? Thoughts on a Fresh New Approach to Dealing With Online Errors, Misrepresentations, and Quackery

This afternoon, I’ll be at MIT for this conference, sponsored by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the MIT Center for Civic Media and entitled “Truthiness in Digital Media: A symposium that seeks to address propaganda and misinformation in the new media ecosystem.” Yesterday was the scholarly and intellectual part of the conference, where a variety of presenters (including yours truly) discussed the problem of online misinformation on topics ranging from climate change to healthcare—and learned about some whizzbang potential solutions that some tech folks have already come up with. And now today is the “hack day” where, as MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman put it, the programmers and designers will try to think of ways to “tackle tractable problems with small experiments.”

In his talk yesterday, Zuckerman quoted a helpful—if frankly, somewhat jarring—analogy for thinking about political and scientific misinformation. It’s one that has been used before in this context: You can think of the dissemination of misinformation as someone akin to someone being shot. Once the bullet has been fired and the victim hit, you can try to run to the rescue and stanch the bleeding—by correcting the “facts,” usually several days later. But, psychology tells us that that approach has limited use—and to continue the analogy, it might be a lot better to try to secure a flak jacket for future victims.

Or, better still, stop people from shooting. (I’m paraphrasing Zuckerman here; I did not take exact notes.)

From an MIT engineer’s perspective, Zuckerman noted, the key question is: Where is the “tractable problem” in this, uh, shootout, and what kind of “small experiments” might help us to address it? Do we reach the victim sooner? Is a flak jacket feasible? And so on.

The experimenters have already begun attacking this design problem: I was fascinated yesterday by a number of canny widgets and technologies that folks have come up with to try to defeat all manner of truthiness.

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January 19 2012

17:24

Who’s Afraid of Kerry Emanuel? Why Republicans Are Attacking a Republican Climate Scientist

Last week, MIT climate scientist and hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel received email threats for his view on climate change. These were quickly and appropriately condemned by the progressive and environmental blogosphere—as they are condemned by me—but I want to go a bit further and contemplate why Emanuel’s views in particular appear so menacing to some elements of the conservative base today.

The answer may seem deceptively simple on the surface: Unlike most climate researchers, Kerry Emanuel describes himself as a long time Republican. And he’s been speaking out lately. The precise catalyst leading to the emails was a video posted by Climate Desk, capturing Emanuel at an event in New Hampshire organized by maverick Republicans who actually accept global warming and don’t like the way their party is headed. They want to turn it around (hey, good luck with that).

So Emanuel is presumably seen as a turncoat by some Republicans and conservatives—and you might just leave it at that. But I think it is deeper. It is the kind of Republicanism that Emanuel represents—merged with his identity as a scientist, and a premiere one at that—that really presents the biggest challenge.

You see, Emanuel is what you might call an “Enlightenment Republican.”

He joined the party in the 1970s because he personally viewed it as the home of “reason” at a time of left wing excesses. As I wrote after I interviewed him for the American Prospect magazine (Emanuel is also a featured personage in my book The Republican Brain):

In the early 1970s, as an undergraduate at MIT, [Emanuel] remembers feeling surrounded by the "liberal excesses" then prevalent in the "People's Republic" of Cambridge, Massachusetts. "I remember hearing fellow students defending Pol Pot and Mao Zedong and Stalin, and I was so horrified," he says. But now Emanuel sees the situation as reversed: The extremes are on the Tea Party right, the Democrats are centrists and pragmatists, and Emanuel—really always a moderate—finds not so much that he has moved but that his party has. "I'm turned off by those people for exactly the same reasons I was turned off by the ideologues of the 1970s," he says.

Emanuel also made these comments to me:

"I don't like it when ideology trumps reason, and I see that the Republicans are guilty of that in spades at the moment," he says.

"I've been toying with the idea of officially switching to independent status," he adds.

In our interview, Emanuel also spoke of his admiration for the late William F. Buckley, Jr., the kind of person that today’s right sorely lacks—a sophisticated and nuanced intellectual in a position of leadership.

In other words, Emanuel’s story tells us just how much American politics have changed in the last three decades, and just what a cliff the GOP has fallen from in its relationship with science and reason.

In the 1960s and 1970s, if you thought the anti-war leftists on the campuses were overdoing it and you disliked ideological extremes, the Republican Party was a great place for you to go. Or at least, so it may have appeared at the time.

Even in the Reagan years, while there were certainly abuses against science there was also much more Republican rationalism and moderation—epitomized by Reagan’s joining the Montreal Protocol to curtail harmful stratospheric ozone depletion from CFCs.

This history, this legacy, led many people of reason—like Emanuel—to feel very comfortable within the Republican ranks. And once you forge a relationship with a political party and develop a loyalty, it is very hard to change it.

But the injuries to Republican reasoners have steadily mounted—from Newt Gingrich presiding over the destruction of congressional science advice in the mid 1990s, to the George W. Bush administration’s undermining of science at every turn, to the Tea Party and the near monolithic rejection of climate science by today’s GOP presidential candidates—and rationalists like Emanuel have a harder and harder time hanging on. Indeed, at this point they’re hanging by a thread.

What’s more, deep down, a lot of the right wing science deniers kind of know that they are pushing these people away.

Don’t get me wrong: They don’t actually believe that they’re factually incorrect. They don’t view themselves as “deniers.” But they definitely know that there is a huge amount of knowledge, intellect, and expertise that they’re flying in the face of. And they feel that disdain, as well as that bafflement, coming from the acknowledged centers of science and learning.

So when one of their “own,” Kerry Emanuel, comes along and states—from an expert scientific perspective—that they’re abandoning reason…the cognitive dissonance is just too great. And because they can’t admit the truth about themselves, they can only lash at the messenger.

Here’s the thing, though. Emanuel may have been a Republican for a very long time. But he and those New Hampshire moderates seeking to reclaim the party for science are, in my opinion, in for a “long wait for a train don’t come” (to quote a really awesome sci-fi movie).

I fully understand their feelings of loyalty—and their desire to rescue what once was. But at the same time, I think they themselves probably recognize that the 60s and 70s—a time when, among other things, the Christian right was not fully integrated into the GOP—will never return. Heck, even I might have been a Republican in that era; I certainly find Frank Zappa’s songs making fun of hippies pretty hilarious. 

But that’s not the world we’re living in today—Republicanism and science just don’t go together much any longer. And the Republicans or conservatives who do stand up for rationality today—people like David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, and Kerry Emanuel—are most easily identified today by one chief characteristic: their banishment and alienation.

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April 15 2011

00:52

Lindzen Slipping from Ranks of "Credible" Scientists

Has the once-respected professor "gone emeritus"?

Richard Lindzen has long been the "skeptic" community's scientific poster boy. In a world stuffed with deniers for hire such as S. Fred Singer and Tim Ball, who lecture on the topic of climate change regardless that they bring little or no relevant expertise to the subject, Lindzen is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT and has served (many years ago) as a lead author on a chapter in the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But increasingly, his trenchant denial that climate change is a concern is casting him further from the ranks of people who can be taken seriously - particularly as he shows increasing willingness to say things that are simply and demonstrably not true.

Take as an example this recent radio interview, in which Lindzen tells Australian commentator Chris Smith that his country's effort to tackle climate change by implementing carbon tax is "a bit bizarre."

Lindzen says a number of silly things (in more detail below), but he flat out lies about the state of polar ice in Greenland and Antarctica saying, "there is no evidence of any significant change."<!--break-->

Isabella Velicogna would disagree. In her most recent Geophysical Research Letters paper on ice mass loss calibrated by the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) satellite mission, she recorded losses on Greenland amounting to 286 giggatonnes a year between 2007–2009 on Greenland and 246 Gt/yr in 2006–2009 in Antarctica. Compared to a period five years earlier, the loss was accelerating by a trend that Velicogna described as quadratic rather than linear.

Most of Lindzen's comments in this interview amount to little more than advising children to play with matches. For example, he says that it is "bizarre" for people in Australia to try to rein in their carbon emissions because that action, "couldn't be justified by any impact that it would have on Australia or anyone." Lindzen doesn't make any effort to justify this view, leaving us to speculate that he might be arguing that any action taken by Australia's small population would be irrelevant, especially when both population and personal carbon emissions are growing quickly in the developing world.

It's the argument you might hear from Smokey the Bear's evil cousin, who advises not that "Only you can prevent forest fires," but: "What the hell, some guy in China might be starting a fire right now anyway; what possible difference can it make if YOU'RE reckless?"

Lindzen is only 71 years old, a little early to "go emeritus" in the sense of forgetting entirely the necessity to check your work before you open your mouth - and to restrict yourself to topics on which you have actually done some recent research. Then again, this is a guy who once testified that it was hard to make a link between smoking and cancer.

Toward the end of the radio interview, however, Lindzen said one thing that's hard to criticize. Asked to imagine what people will think when they look back on this time 40 years from now, he said, they "will wonder how science broke down." They'll wonder how, "in a period of technilogical advance that the public could be swayed by arguments that make no sense."

On that position, he is sure to be proved correct.

August 24 2010

17:25

Will Robots Clean Up Future Oil Spills?

Researchers at M.I.T. have developed a prototype for what could become a swarm of a floating, oil-collecting robots.

December 31 2009

19:56

The Copenhagen Wheel – Hybrid Power Bike System Unveiled for COP15


The Copenhagen Wheel was unveiled on December 15 at the COP15 climate conference. The hybrid power kit installs on a regular bicycle and stores power through normal cycling and braking. The stored power then provides a boost when you need it. The system can be controlled through your smart phone, locking and unlocking your bike, monitoring your effort level, setting the amount of "boost" you need, and providing traffic information, routing, city destination information – even pollution levels.

The Copenhagen Wheel project was conceived and developed by the SENSEable City Lab for the Kobenhavns KommuneDucati Energia assisted on developing prototypes for the project, and funding was provided from Danish Ministry for the Environment. Progical Solutions LLC provided technical support for the iphone control of the bikes.

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