Wednesday, May 30, 2012


By easing up on the gas pedal of efficiency and creating jobs in what are traditionally seen as “low productivity” sectors, we have within our grasp the means to maintain or increase employment, even when the economy stagnates.

At first, this may sound crazy; we’ve become so conditioned by the language of efficiency. But there are sectors of the economy where chasing productivity growth doesn’t make sense at all. Certain kinds of tasks rely inherently on the allocation of people’s time and attention. The caring professions are a good example: medicine, social work, education. Expanding our economies in these directions has all sorts of advantages.

In the first place, the time spent by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more and more patients per hour? The Royal College of Nursing in Britain warned recently that front-line staff members in the National Health Service are now being “stretched to breaking point,” in the wake of staffing cuts, while a study earlier this year in the Journal of Professional Nursing revealed a worrying decline in empathy among student nurses coping with time targets and efficiency pressures. Instead of imposing meaningless productivity targets, we should be aiming to enhance and protect not only the value of the care but also the experience of the caregiver.

The care and concern of one human being for another is a peculiar “commodity.” It can’t be stockpiled. It becomes degraded through trade. It isn’t delivered by machines. Its quality rests entirely on the attention paid by one person to another. Even to speak of reducing the time involved is to misunderstand its value.

Care is not the only profession deserving renewed attention as a source of economic employment. Craft is another. It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?

The endemic modern tendency to streamline or phase out such professions highlights the lunacy at the heart of the growth-obsessed, resource-intensive consumer economy. Low productivity is seen as a disease. A whole set of activities that could provide meaningful work and contribute valuable services to the community are denigrated because they involve employing people to work with devotion, patience and attention.

But people often achieve a greater sense of well-being and fulfillment, both as producers and consumers of such activities, than they ever do in the time-poor, materialistic supermarket economy in which most of our lives are spent. And here perhaps is the most remarkable thing of all: since these activities are built around the value of human services rather than the relentless outpouring of material stuff, they offer a half-decent chance of making the economy more environmentally sustainable.

The team evaluated two competing explanations for why some members of the public are unfazed by climate change. One possible reason is that people don’t have enough scientific knowledge, or they tend to make quick judgments instead of using analytical reasoning. Another hypothesis is that people stick to opinions that align with their social groups’ values.

To distinguish between these explanations, the authors asked 1,540 adults in the United States how serious a risk climate change presented. The team also evaluated the respondents’ scientific literacy and gave them math problems to test their “numeracy,” or ability to process quantitative data.

The higher the person’s scientific literacy and math skills, the lower he or she scored the risk of climate change, the researchers found. But people who valued an egalitarian, communitarian society rated the climate change risk higher than those who valued a hierarchical society and individualism.

Within each cultural group, scientific knowledge simply made a person more entrenched in that group’s beliefs. Egalitarian communitarians with high science literacy and math skills rated climate change as a more serious concern than their peers did, while hierarchical individualists with those skills rated climate change as a less serious concern than others in their group.

In other words, “polarization actually becomes larger, not smaller, as science literacy and numeracy increase,” the authors write. The team found a similar pattern when they polled people about the risks of nuclear power. Instead of leading disparate groups toward a consensus, science and math skills give people “a greater facility to discover and use—or explain away—evidence relating to their groups’ positions.”
Dave Roberts at Grist goes into some more detail:
Kahan found that, among those with low scientific literacy, assessment of climate risk was high among “egalitarian communitarians” (those with a worldview “favoring less regimented forms of social organization and greater collective attention to individual needs”) and low among “hierarchical individualists” (those with a worldview “that ties authority to conspicuous social rankings and eschews collective interference with the decisions of individuals possessing such authority”).

So what happens as scientific literacy increases? The naive view — what Kahan calls the “science comprehension thesis,” or SCT — predicts that hierarchical individualists with high scientific literacy will more accurately perceive the risk and converge with egalitarian communitarians.


[T]he SCT prediction is dead wrong — as science literacy and numeracy increase, polarization rises. Well-educated, carefully reasoning hierarchical individualists are less convinced of the danger of climate change.

What explains this? Here is Kahan’s alternative to SCT:
The alternative explanation can be referred to as the cultural cognition thesis (CCT). CCT posits that individuals, as a result of a complex of psychological mechanisms, tend to form perceptions of societal risks that cohere with values characteristic of groups with which they identify. Whereas SCT emphasizes a conflict between scientists and the public, CCT stresses one between different segments of the public, whose members are motivated to fit their interpretations of scientific evidence to their competing cultural philosophies.
The operative concept here is “motivated reasoning.” The idea is, we begin by absorbing the values of our tribes — what is and isn’t important, what is and isn’t a risk — and use whatever numeracy and scientific literacy we possess to seek out facts and arguments that support those views. Getting smarter, in other words, only makes us better at justifying our own worldviews. It does not necessarily give us more scientifically accurate worldviews.

Kahan’s alternative, needless to say, predicts survey answers better than SCT. It follows pretty straightforwardly that SCT is wrong and that educating people on science and reasoning will only reinforce the partisan divide on climate. This much, it seems to me, is beyond serious doubt. SCT is dead. Insofar as people still hold the naive view — and many (most?) still do, explicitly or implicitly — they should let it go once and for all. More and better science is not the answer, at least not a complete answer. If the partisan divide on climate is to be “solved,” it must be solved directly, on the level of worldviews, not by the indirect route of scientific education.

How might that be done? Kahan gestures at an answer:
As citizens understandably tend to conform their beliefs about societal risk to beliefs that predominate among their peers, communicators should endeavor to create a deliberative climate in which accepting the best available science does not threaten any group’s values. Effective strategies include use of culturally diverse communicators, whose affinity with different communities enhances their credibility, and information-framing techniques that invest policy solutions with resonances congenial to diverse groups. Perfecting such techniques through a new science of science communication is a public good of singular importance.
Kahan offers more of his own take at his blog.

Could climate change be the impetus to extending our scope of moral behavior? (h/t Sourav):
[W]ere it not for climate change, we would be giving even less thought to polar bears, or to the global poor, and would see little connection between our actions and their fate. As Peter Unger’s Living High and Letting Die showed, our customary moral intuitions barely extend to poor foreigners, let alone to their descendants, or to Arctic fauna. It is thanks to climate change that an entire body of political thought has emerged which positions our everyday actions in direct relation to their most distant consequences.

Adam Smith once noted that we are less troubled by the prospect of a hundred million people dying as a result of an earthquake in some distant location than of losing our little finger, but would nevertheless be horrified by the idea we might allow them to die in order to save it. Climate change effectively transforms the former scenario into the latter, and so places unprecedented demands on our moral imagination. Almost every little thing we do contributes to our carbon footprint, which increases greenhouse gases, which could in turn ultimately threaten hundreds of millions of lives in some remote time and place – the uncertainty only adding to the sublime awfulness of our responsibilities.

Contrary to Gardiner’s concerns about moral corruption, climate change does not tempt us to be less moral than we might otherwise be; it invites us to be more moral than we could ever have imagined. Unlike the Dashwoods, we never knew how many relatives we had. Climate ethics is not morality applied but morality discovered, a new chapter in the moral education of mankind. It may tell us things we do not wish to know (about democracy, perhaps), but the future development of humanity may depend on what, if anything, it can teach us.

Kaid Benfield challenges his fellow advocates of smart growth to consider the full set of consequences of the actions they push for:
I believe the increasing urbanization of Washington (and, for that matter, other cities and metro areas) is necessary and good – for the environment, for the economy, for our social fabric. The alternative of the kind of chaotic suburban sprawl we suffered during much of the last 50 years is completely unacceptable. [...] But we shouldn’t pretend that it’s going to be universally good for all stakeholders, or that the costs that accompany the benefits don’t matter. We should be clear-eyed about them, and do everything we can to mitigate them, heal any wounds suffered along the way, and accommodate changing needs. If that means compromise or accepting a somewhat lesser degree of urbanization in some cases, I’m fine with that.

Zoos, conservation, and deciding which species to save:
If there are criticisms, they are that zoos are not transforming their mission quickly enough from entertainment to conservation.

“We as a society have to decide if it is going to be ethically and morally appropriate to simply display animals for entertainment purposes,” said Dr. Steven L. Monfort, the director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, part of the National Zoo in Washington. “In my opinion, that model is broken. There needs to be an explicit role for zoos to champion species.”

Dr. Monfort wants zoos to raise more money for the conservation of animals in the wild and to make that effort as important as erecting fancier accommodations for their captive collections. Zoos, he said, should build facilities — not necessarily open to the public — that are large enough to handle whole herds of animals so that more natural reproductive behavior can occur. And less emphasis should be placed on animals that are popular attractions but are doing fine in the wild, like African elephants and California sea lions, Dr. Monfort said, adding that they should be replaced with animals in desperate need of rescuing.

Many zoo directors say that such a radical reordering is not called for and that each zoo does valuable work even if conserving just a few species.

But Dr. Monfort is not satisfied. He wants all zoos within the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to aim higher on conservation efforts. “I am comfortable with raising the standards for zoos so that eventually it will be harder and harder to be accredited unless you are doing that,” he said in an interview. “If you can’t keep up, then you probably need to be dropped off the bottom.”

Freedom ain't so free for some who already thought they paid for their crimes:
In recent years, communities around the country have gone beyond regulating where sex offenders can live and begun banning them outright from a growing list of public places.

From North Carolina to Washington State, communities have designated swimming pools, parks and school bus stops as “child safety zones,” off limits to some sex offenders. They are barred from libraries in half a dozen Massachusetts cities, and from all public facilities in tiny Huachuca City, Ariz.

“Child safety zones are being passed more and more at the city and county level,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “It’s becoming more and more restrictive. They’re not only limiting where sex offenders can live, but they’re limiting their movement as well.”

The proliferation of such restrictions reflects the continued concerns of parents and lawmakers about potential recidivism among sex offenders. But it has also increasingly raised questions about their effectiveness, as well as their fairness.

Opponents have dismissed “child safety zones” as unenforceable, saying they are designed to make politicians look tough on crime and drive sex offenders from the area, not make children safer.

“These are cheap laws that can be passed to make people feel good,” said Charles P. Ewing, author of “Justice Perverted: Sex Offense Law, Psychology, and Public Policy.”

Irene Pai, a lawyer with the Orange County public defender’s office, said “child safety zones” give parents a false sense of security, punishing many offenders who are not dangerous without actually stopping predators from entering parks.

Ms. Pai said she had a stack of cases involving people who were arrested for urinating in public in the 1970s and pleaded guilty to indecent exposure without realizing they would have to register as sex offenders.

“The very notion that a park ordinance could in any way protect children, more than an attentive caregiver’s presence or any other way we protect our children, is absurd,” she said.

Greg Bird was convicted of indecent exposure in 2001. Since then, Mr. Bird said, he has gotten married and turned his life around.

But he now pauses at the idea of having children of his own, because he knows he could not even take them to the park to play catch.

“Sometimes I wonder, is there any compassion?” Mr. Bird said. “I know I don’t deserve compassion. I broke the law. I get that. But these laws set people up to fail more.”

If you redefine all “collateral damage” as terrorists, then you'll never kill any innocents again:
Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
Scott Horton addresses the bigger picture regarding targeted killings that the NYTimes piece is about.

Climate change the culprit in the fall of the Indus.

Addressing climate change via the market.

Communicating climate change via video.

A rather simplistic analysis that doesn't account for potential adaptation suggests higher death tolls from climate change-induced heat-related deaths.

Not all species lose with global warming.

The demand for freshwater and sea-level rise.

A potential link between BPA and breast cancer.

Bluefin tuna are transporting Fukushima's radioactive material to California.

More trees, less crime? Identifying an actual causal mechanism would be nice, though.

Chicago attempts to eliminate traffic fatalities.

Wind farms look to reduce bird deaths.

Marine reserves are good for commercial fisheries.

Concerns over oil drilling in the Arctic.

Brazil's president vetoed some, but not all, of the country's new forest code. WWF has more.

Big Pollution literally buys itself support at a public hearing.

Volunteer conservation can be effective.

Turning plastic waste into cash?

A net-zero energy use home in Brooklyn.

There is no war on coal, though there probably should be.

The Romney environmental advisor now working for Obama's EPA.

Vienna's response to the waste problem.

The pull of walkable urbanism.

David Byrne loves biking.

Oncologists and making space to grieve.

Too often, costly, overly aggressive medical care causes more pain and suffering than if nothing had been done at all.”

A Christian obstetrician explains why he performs abortions.

Hope and the emerging generation of feminists.

Republicans for equal rights! (For fetuses.) And more on this absurdity.

Each year many thousands of children are brought to America by their parents. They come before they have any concept of citizenship, much less of belonging. Like me, they will draw their notions of “home” not only from what is familiar and desirable but also from what is permitted and denied them.”

Convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.”

Krugman on the phoniness of Chris Christie.

What to say on Twitter if you want to be tracked by DHS.

If there's one thing Teabaggers are generally consistent about, it's being hypocritical and inconsistent.

Bloomberg loves law and order?

Sandy Levinson on “our imbecilic Constitution.”

How the FBI creates home-grown “terrorists” via entrapment.

Taking on “shoot first” laws.

The phony regulation debate.

Florida proves once again that taking on voter fraud usually means suppressing minorities' ability to vote.

What India's sputtering economy means for the rest of the world.

One year post-non-apocalypse.

A family reunion thirty years after Guatemalan military massacre. This American Life brings the story to radio:

When do kids become adults?

Sacha Baron Cohen as minstrel, ironic racist?

Colonoscopies can be pricier than expected, thanks to anesthesiologists.

Does anonymizing the grant review process make a difference?

The consequences of bipedalism.

A newly discovered sensory organ in whales.

The structure and movement of the deep Earth.

Smelling danger.

Mapping the deaths in Mexico's drug war.

Language descriptivists aren't as evil as they're made out to be.

Portraits of miniscule royalty.

Things Jason saw.

The earliest musical instrument.

An interview with Spiritualized frontman Jason Pierce and a live performance of recent single “Hey Jane”:

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