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Brisbane Institute credibility down the tubes

July 23rd, 2009

For the last decade or so, the Brisbane Institute has played a prominent and constructive role in the intellectual life of this city. I’ve attended, and sometimes spoken at, quite a few of its functions. But I just got the news that the Institute is presenting a piece billed as an attack on Al Gore and presented by Jay Lehr of the US based Heartland Institute.

Even judged against the low bar set by climate delusionists in general, the Heartland Institute is a disgrace. Its most notable achievement was the publication of a list purporting to be of scientists whose work contradicted mainstream climate science. Such lists, common in the delusionists attempts to deny that they are pushing fringe science, usually contain large numbers of name with few or no relevant qualifications. The Heartland list was different. It contained the names of lots of genuine scientists, but misrepresented their position. Even when scientists protested against this misrepresentation, Heartland refused to take their names off the list on the basis that they (a bunch of rightwing hacks with no qualifications whatsoever) were better placed to interpret the results of scientific research than were the authors of that research.

The Heartland Institute has no legitimate place in public life and anyone who works for or with it brands themselves as a charlatan. It is to be hoped that the Brisbane Institute’s decision to promote Heartland’s lies is the result of a negligent failure to check on the credibility of their speakers rather than a decision to legitimise this body. Still, I suspect it will be a while before I am willing to work any more with them.

(Hat tip: Mike Smith)

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  1. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 12:05 | #1

    @John Mashey

    Oh I quite take your point, though we might debate the benchmarks at which informed consent is deemed possible. Differing jurisdictions have a variety of ideas about that.

    I think the case for being confident that consent is informed doesn’t really relate to age (though it’s obviously important). Most of us would be fibbing if we really avowed a strong and detailed grasp of the risks, costs and benefits of smoking to us and to the community as a whole. It follows that all the costs associated with ensuring that every putative smoker is fully seized of these matters and thus capable of weighing them ought, in theory, to be settled pro-rata on every smoking act. In practice this simply isn’t viable, any more than it’s realistic to ensure that anything like 100% of every near adult population is functionally numerate and literate, as desirable as that would be, so our deeming of informed consent takes the much easier path of picking a chronological age number and making that the benchmark, much as it does with sex. The number is intended to ensure administrative ease and certainty for all involved.

    But still, the costs remain, whatever the attached bureaucratic fiat and if as a matter of ethics we do want deterrence since conveying the scope of the harm precisely and adequately to most is impossible, then erring on the high side makes good ethical sense.

    Fran

  2. John Mashey
    July 24th, 2009 at 13:25 | #2

    @Fran Barlow

    Age is indeed a quite imperfect indicator, but indeed the conventional choice. From past experience, some 15-year-olds have better judgement that some 25-year-olds.

    But let me try an analogy, and then a speculation.

    Analogy: driving a car. Places set rules about:

    a) The earliest age that one might be allowed to drive a car.
    b) Age-related restrictions of various kinds, generally intended to avoid accident-prone behavior.
    c) More-or-less objective tests of driving skill and judgement, of various degrees of quality. One could of course wish for broader use of driving simulators and some kind of test that would identify drivers with poor judgement.

    Speculation: “age of consent” is really messy and vague. One could wish for some kind of medical test that identified addiction vulnerabilities, especially for a case like nicotine, where there really does seem to be a strong time window.

    Indeed, the costs remain, and erring on the high side is fine with me. Age 24 is probably find; 22 might be; 18 is probably still a bit low. I haven’t seen a good study with precise distributions, although I’d love to see such.

    Again, I’m not dismissing the cost issue. I’m just saying that it all too often causes people to ignore the weirdness of allowing a business that only exists by addicting children.

  3. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 13:39 | #3

    I’m inclined to agree with you John on the threshhold ages. Studies of adolescent brains focusing on the amygdala suggest that brains are probably not fully cognitively ‘adult’ until somewhere between 21 and 25, most of the time. Hence the problems with alcohol, cigarettes, driving etc.

    Still, in so far as a high entry cost imposes differential barriers on those under 25, and even more so on those under 21, 18 etc these seem justified. They are easier too than attempts at universal application of regulatory enforcement, plain packaging, placement out of sight etc much as these will remain necessary.

    A side note: I don’t buy the argument that corn-based ethanol forces up the cost of food (though it’s an irrational enterprise just the same) but does not an objection on rational land use apply to tobacco, alcohol etc?

  4. John Mashey
    July 24th, 2009 at 16:30 | #4

    Tobacco is relevant, given tobacco’s peculiar connection with climate anti-science via thinktanks and their funding patterns, especially obvious with Heartland, but which shows up with some other large thinktanks as well.

    I mentioned WHO on tobacco, i.e., deforestration in that thread at Harry Clarke. Forests are cleared not only to grow to tobacco, but burned to cure it. Hence, there is certainly a climate connection.

    ====
    I wouldn’t try getting into corn-based ethanol in *this* thread; too far off-topic, and it’s way more complicated than most people think. In the USA, the factors include weird, market-distorting structure of farm subsidies, especially since 1962; the emergence of huge agribusinesses; the disproportionate influence of rural states in the US Senate; corn overproduction; the lack of local petroleum in most corn-producing states; the established infrastructure/machinery for distributing corn, planting it, harvesting it, getting it efficiently to grain elevators at railways, etc.

    I’d really prefer switchgrass or miscanthus for numerous reasons,including EROEI, but some real issues must be overcome first. I sympathize with Iowa or Nebraska. From *their* point of view, corn-based ethanol is not at all irrational, but to understand that, it helps to have live farming experience, and most people don’t, so all this takes a lot of explanation.

  5. Fran Barlow
    July 24th, 2009 at 19:58 | #5

    From the POV of Iowa the problems are an externality … (cough)

    Agree on Panicum and Miscanthus which can alos have other agricultural benefits. Even sugar cane isn’t so crazy (though I’d prefer not to go there). Algae is also a serious possibility. Then there’s landfill gas, invasive plant species, ground fuel etc …

  6. philip travers
    July 25th, 2009 at 00:31 | #6

    And KeeleyNet.comwhat’snew some time back had a wonderful story about a man who invented a lighter than air machine that worked on the basis of a twist of a screw.Seeing hardly anyone even looks at screws today or even applies a electric current to them,the basics of just simple understandings of much simpler batteries and how things are in the background energies is overlooked..the story may not of been entirely factually.But you take a spiral screw that have sharp edges to cut into the timber and remain solidly there,and the simple reasoning starts to proceed.The comparison with vortice forces in water,and now even products that mimmick golf ball flight becomes apparent.Electricity likes sharp points and edges of a screw have as that edge a whole series of points.If a point of electricity emerges from a point,it then becomes a simple question of what material force would an electric point operate on to give enough lift from the turn of a screw!?That in someway is the question CERN is asking,with patterns of sub-molecular particles spinning in unique ways.He may have been this inventor a forerunner of material scientist,where looking at the grainiest configurations of metals takes place under advanced microscopy,and more and more is being found out how material aligns itself to remain material.A spring has similar qualities to a screw,and so does some metals curved over and pressure put on them like say some small plates of metal still seen here and there.The best shape for the flash of vapourisation for fuel use in cars has a sort of bell shape..I take stories like that very seriously,if you ever get to read it,because of some basic tenets of Wilhelm Reich ..mechanical charge mechanical discharge electrical charge electrical discharge.I have seen metal roofs effected by cold frosty nights and the corrugations behave shrinking and enlarging.The miracle of having debates about climate change..may bring us back to observing nature and forms.

  7. Jill Rush
    July 25th, 2009 at 10:58 | #7

    One of the powers we have is to withdraw our services and support (indirect and financial) from agencies that are promoting things that we don’t agree with. It seems perfectly reasonable to withdraw support of any kind from an agency that is prepared to support the views put forward by fraudsters. Sometimes agencies will take on less worthy points of view purportedly for “balance” when really it is about the balance of their bank accounts that is in question. That is why objections and withdrawal of support in the long term can be effective as the short term gain is outweighed by the long term losses.

    The fact that the fraudsters often discuss how much money is being made by those discussing the science of climate change supports the view that this is the aspect they resent. They expect others to not do anything unless there is a quid in it because that is their own motivation. Similarly when they say the science isn’t convincing what they are really suggesting is that they are not interested in science, don’t understand it and will beat up their own case to make more money.

  8. John Mashey
    July 26th, 2009 at 08:43 | #8

    JQ: regarding Heartland, is there a good/well-accepted adjective X to characterize entities that “privatize the profits and socialize the costs/risks”, especially relevant to the benefits?

    I’m wishing to find/build a scale in which:

    highest X: no real benefits, costs heavily socialized (tobacco)

    high X: useful (perhaps) products/services, but costs fairly narrowly socialized, i.e., often to company workers, geographic neighbors, and users. (asbestos, perhaps; some chemical products)

    high X: profits, useful products/services, but costs realized to be widely socialized, even to people who don’t use those products/services [fossil energy companies, i.e., *energy* is clearly useful, and we wouldn't have had the Industrial Revolution without coal; some of these are close the previous, depending on the local hits. I.e., coal mining in Wyoming and that in Appalachia are a bit different.]

    Very low X: consider a software company like Adobe Systems. I’d be hard-pressed to think of any cost or risk they’ve socialized.

    Heartland is a lobbying/PR firm that manages to be non-profit. It resents an appearance of being for free-market ideas, but if one has long dug into their finances (*not* easy!) one can speculate that most of their money comes from companies/foundations that privatize profit/socialize risk, as opposed to people who just want to minimize government size/hassle. Put another way, an entity can be fairly free-market (like “The Economist”), and not have spent their energy defending tobacco companies.

    This marketing approach (i.e., Heartland and some other thinktanks) seems to have been successful, i.e., it seems more cost-effective to use an entrepreneurial entity like this, than to create one’s own explicit front groups, which are often too easily traceable.

    Another advantage of Heartland’s approach might be what I’d call “throwing rocks from a crowd”:

    If you want to throw a rock at a policeman, don’t do it by yourself. Stand in the middle of the biggest crowd you can, and if you’re really lucky, police will shoot back, converting some innocent bystanders to your side.

    Anyway, can you point me at any relevant literature that might cover this already?

  9. jquiggin
    July 26th, 2009 at 09:31 | #9

    JM, I’m not immediately aware of any systematic study of this. One point I have become aware of is that, as regards thinktanks “non-profit, non-partisan” has little informational value. Since thinktanks have no real capital requirements, there’s no reason for them to have shareholders and therefore profits. If there’s any rent, it’s taken in high salaries and perks for the top managers. I guess, looking at ad agencies and similar, there’s no reason a thinktank couldn’t be for-profit, but then I guess it would be much harder to get donations, tax treatment would be different and so on. Similarly, non-partisan just means “not officially associated with a political party”.

  10. John Mashey
    July 26th, 2009 at 12:02 | #10

    Thanks. I’ve been looking at the flows of memes and money for anti-science, and if one compares:

    - ad agencies/PR firms/lobbyists
    vs
    - “nonprofit” thinktanks (the bigger of which do the same things)

    The latter not only have the tax advantages, and ability to pull broader support, but have strongly-visible public identities & brands of their own, independent of funders, more than the first group.

    I conjecture that such thinktanks have taken over roles previously played by things like Council for Tobacco Research/TIRC, TASSC, etc, i.e., it’s a different form of outsourcing.

    If you haven’t read Heartland’s 2008 Prospectus, it is educational. The funding trail is Byzantine^3, because:

    they get money directly from corporations, indviduals and foundations, of which the latter account for 71%. They make a big deal of not getting that much money from corporations.
    but some of those foundations get money from corporations or other foundations.
    and some foundations are set up with family fortunes based on particular companies, i.e., one thinks of the Scaife foundations (Gulf Oil, then Texaco, then Chevron).

    Of course, Heartland has long sought funding (for PR activities) from tobacco companies, easily findable in the Tobacco Archives.

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