The Onion meets Poe’s Law — Crooked Timber

A little while ago, my son pointed me to a news item in a periodical called The Onion, reporting Republican opposition to an Obama proposal to protect the earth against destruction by asteroid impact. The usual libertarian arguments were advanced, pointing out that everyone would be forced to pay for this protection, thereby undermining the incentive to act for themselves.

At the time, I was suspicious that this might be some sort of satirical gag[1]. But now I see the proposal being discussed, and rejected, at the very serious Volokh blog (H/T Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias).

So, based on my extensive agnotological studies, let me make some predictions about some of the scientific claims we are likely to see advanced (by the same people, but at different times), once the debate over Obama’s socialist plan hots up.

  • Asteroids don’t exist
  • The law of gravity means that an impact between an asteroid and the earth is physically impossible
  • An asteroid would inevitably burn up in the atmosphere
  • In a quest for grant funding, NASA has fiddled the data on asteroid orbits to overstate the risk of a collision
  • Massive asteroids hit the earth all the time and nothing bad happens
  • Asteroid strikes are natural so environmentalists are hypocritical in opposing them
  • Al Gore is fat

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

fn1. I’m susceptible enough that I believed DD when he said that Natalie Portman was starring in the movie version of Nassim Taleb’s book. I just went to see it, and, at the very least, the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the text.


A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.

Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.

But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.

Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.

It’s clear, as Dave Weigel points out, that beliefs of this kind are a marker for partisanship, as witness the high correlation between stated birtherist beliefs and approval of Palin. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement isn’t actually believed. Rather this is an open question and an important one for agnotological understanding of the emergence of comprehensive culturally induced ignorance as a marker for the Republican tribe.

In this context, it’s worth noting that birtherism is only a minor part of Obama-related Republican agnotology. The belief that Obama is a secret Muslim is similarly widely held, as is the view that he sympathises with those seeking to impose sharia law.

It’s also worth distinguishing such stated beliefs from statements like “Obama is a socialist”, in which what matters most is the interpretation of the term “socialist” (AFAIC, the most common US meaning is “Democrat with spine”). Compare “Bush is a war criminal”. In these cases, facts about what Obama (or Bush) has actually done are less relevant than judgements about the appropriateness of labels.

My feeling (derived largely from observations on climate change and creationism, which raise similar questions) is that we can distinguish numerous different belief states that go along with birtherist answers to opinion poll questions. There are lots of nuances, but most are combinations of the following

  • A conspiracy-theoretic view of the world in which liberal elites (a term encompassing Democrats, unions, schoolteachers, scientists, academics and many others) are plotting to undermine the American way of life and replace it with some unspecified, but awful alternative. In this case, answers to these questions reflect actual beliefs
  • Partisanship as suggested by Weigel in which Republicans choose to give the most negative answer possible about Obama as an affirmation of tribal identity.
  • Doublethink in which people are aware that in some mundane sense Obama was born in Hawaii, but also believe that Republican ideology is true and implies the birtherist answer
  • Conformism, in which people know the truth but give the culturally preferred answer, or choose some evasive form of words, as with John Boehner recently.

Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs

  • First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
  • Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.

Hockey sticks his neck out

I was at a Media Club lunch in Brisbane today where Joe Hockey was the speaker. Amid a bunch of fairly predictable talking points, he offered the view that, if we want to address problems of housing affordability, measures that increase demand, like the First Home Buyers Grant, are exactly the wrong way to go. He’s right of course, and just about every economist who has every looked at the issue has made the same point. Still, given the sacred-cow status of home ownership (both in itself and as a speculative investment) it’s the kind of statement that Sir Humphrey would call “courageous”.

Strikingly, not one of the assembled journalists took him up on it. Instead they bowled him up a series of questions on the kerfuffle du jour regarding the Christmas Island funerals all of which (to mix my cricketing metaphors) he padded away, let through to the keeper or dispatched to the boundary with ease. If I had been looking for a story instead of going through the motions, I would have asked something like “How much could the government save by abolishing FHBG, and where would the money be better spent”.

Given that Hockey has tackled one sacred cow, let me express the hope that some truly courageous politician will make the point that the biggest source of house price inflation is the set of subsidies to owner-occupied housing including exemption from land tax and capital gains tax and exclusion from most means tests. Michael Egan tried to tackle this in NSW, only for houses worth more than $1m IIRC, and got nowhere.

75 per cent

This post, written in the immediate aftermath of the floods (and the subject of some controversy) is looking pretty good in the light of the recent decision to release water from Wivenhoe Dam, with a target of 75 per cent.

Having had some time for reflection, the obvious modification to my initial position is that we shouldn’t have a fixed target, but rather should take account of the seasonal pattern of rainfall and, to the extent that this is possible, of the El Nino/La Nina/SO cycle. One way to do this would be to set targets for the beginning and end of the wet season, designed to be consistent with expected rainfall and usage for the wet and dry seasons. As I mentioned in my previous post, the flexibility associated with desal and recycling plants and the Water Grid would make this kind of management much easier than in the past.

Looking back at the controversy this post aroused, it’s clear that it was due in part to the involvement of The Australian and the anti-science lobby on climate change, which, for reasons that remain obscure to me, decided to run with the line that early release of water from Wivenhoe Dam would have greatly reduced the severity of the floods. It’s interesting to find that being in partial agreement with the Oz is even worse than being attacked by them. The Oz presentation of news on the dam management policy, as on all issues where it decides to push a line, was so selective and skewed that it even relatively simple issues, like the proportion of floodwater that came from the Bremer river, became hopelessly confused.

So, to clarify, both my original post and this one refer to policy options for the future, which might be adopted in the light of the floods, and of the likelihood of more extreme climate events in the future. With perfect hindsight, and discretion unfettered by a rulebook, managers would certainly have made different decisions in the days leading up to the flood. But what is really needed is a long-term change to the management procedures that set 100 per cent of water supply capacity as a fixed target. IIRC, the only calls for such a change in the leadup to this wet season were from those objecting to the release of water, and implicitly calling for a higher target.

Monday Message Board

It’s time again for the Monday Message Board to resume. Post comments on any topic. As usual, civilised discussion and no coarse language. Lengthy side discussions to the sandpit, please.

BTW, apologies for slow response time and 503 errors if you are getting them. I’m looking into this.

Adventures in agnotology

A fun list from Ranker, on the absurdities of Bill O’Reilly, some mockery of which is now going viral. And while we’re on the subject of lists, here’s Alternet with 10 historical facts only a rightwinger could believe.

Meanwhile, Brad Delong cites an attack on relativity theory by Tom Bethell of the American Spectator and Hoover Institution. Bethell’s source is the “Galilean electrodynamics of rightwing crank physicist Petr Beckman, commemorated in the Petr Beckman award, which has been accepted by a string of the scientific luminaries of the climate science denial movement such as Fred Singer, Sallie Baliunas and Willie Soon. As DeLong observes with respect to the publication of the Bethell piece

from that moment on, my working hypothesis was that the conservative wing[1] of the Republican Party is composed exclusively of people who have completely disabled their bulls**t detectors. That working hypothesis has served me very well for seventeen years now.

Of course, this applies in spades to the Australian importers and distributors of this stuff – Bolt, Devine, Windschuttle and the entire Murdoch press.

The left has its faults and follies, to be sure. But it must be excruciatingly embarrassing to be, for example, a (genuine) scientist or historian of conservative inclinations, aware that your political allies are at best utterly indifferent, and at worst actively hostile, to scientific and historical truth.

Update There’s a response at Catallaxy, with a lengthy (and typically Catallaxian) comments thread, largely focusing on my offhand reference to Bolt and others as Australian advocates of anti-science views imported from the US. I didn’t intend to suggest that the people I mentioned are opposed to relativity theory or, more generally, that they are consistently anti-science like Bethell and Conservapedia. Rather, they take something of a “cafeteria contra-science” view, happy to endorse mainstream science whenever its implications support their political views, or provides the basis for cool new technology, but equally ready to discover a massive global conspiracy any time the science comes out the “wrong” way (on smoking, DDT, global warming, CFCs etc).

fn1. DeLong is presumably speaking in the terms applicable to the early 1990s, when the Republican Party included numerous centrists and even some remnants of the once influential “liberal Republicans” epitomized by Eisenhower.

Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit(s). As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Can we feed the world? Will we?

I’m in Melbourne for the conference of the Australian Agricultural & Resource Economics Society (in fact, I’m currently President-elect of the Society[1]. There have been a couple of great papers on long-term food supply from Phil Pardey and Tom Hertel. So, this seems like a good idea to write down some thoughts about (what ought to be, at any rate) the central issue of agricultural economics – whether the global food system can produce enough food for the world and deliver it to those who need it. I’m hoping to refine this in response to comments – I’ll mark major changes but will otherwise adjust as I go.

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Global warming takes a globe

As part of the publicity effort for the AARES conference, I was interviewed, along with some of our invited speakers, by the ABC Country Hour. I talked mainly about global warming and (along with Quentin Grafton and Alan Randall) water policy in the Murray Darling Basin, two of the main topics discussed at the conference (I also wrote an opinion piece, which was published here).

Given the audience, we were anticipating the arrival of hotly worded text messages denouncing the IPCC etc. However, the first one in was much more pleasantly amusing “We never had global warming when the world was flat. I blame Christopher Columbus”[1]

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