Adventures in social network analysis: approaching the finale

A few years back as part of the attack on climate science (and in particular the famous ‘hockey stick’ graph) Senator Joe Barton commission an assessment of the work of Michael Mann and others from Professor Edward Wegman of George Mason University, along with his former student Yasmin Said and some others. This included, not only Wegman’s supposedly independent assessment of the statistical methods used by Mann but a ‘social network analysis’ of the relationship between Mann and his co-authors, which purportedly showed that Mann’s network of co-authors dominated the climate science field. As I pointed out at the time, Wegman et al started the analysis with Mann at the centre, so the primary result was that Mann had written a paper with every one of his co-authors! Nevertheless, a version of the paper was published in Computational Statistics and Data Analysis, in which Wegman took this analysis to the startling conclusion that senior academics should not collaborate with each other, but should instead work only with their students. Wegman follows his own advice in this respect, and now we can see why.

It’s just been announced that the paper is to be retracted on the grounds that it contains extensive plagiarism, much but not all of it from Wikipedia. Wegman’s response, showing the wisdom of his research strategy, is to blame his graduate student, who was not, however credited as an author. USA Today, which has taken the lead in following the Wegman plagiarism story, asked an actual expert to look at the paper and her reaction was about the same as my amateur assessment (Wegman and Said are also newcomers to the field, which may explain their heavy reliance on Wikipedia as a reference source).
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Agnotology and Santa Claus

For students of agnotology there is no more striking finding than the observation that many people, presented with evidence that undermines a strongly held belief, react as if that belief had been confirmed[1]. This seems to undermine any possibility that evidence will ever settle political disputes. And yet, evidence does seem to seep through in the end. Although belief in Saddam’s Weapons of Mass Destruction persisted long after the absence of evidence had turned into clear evidence of absence, it faded away in the end (not that it has completely disappeared even now).

As a slightly more optimistic take on the experimental evidence, I offer the example of Santa Claus. Young children, presented with the suggestion that Santa isn’t real, blithely ignore it. Slightly older children, though, react in exactly the manner of the experimental subjects, reaffirming their belief in the Santa story and (of course) the associated presents. Later, of course, they accept the truth.

In some social contexts children are likely draw the obvious analogy between Santa and God, while in other contexts, the distinction between the two beliefs is maintained successfully. But regardless of context, there is an obvious risk, for those who would like their children to grow up as theists, in insisting too hard on the reality of Santa.

Similarly, I suspect that the apparent success of Republicans in believing six impossible things before breakfast, and in taking up new delusions as old ones are abandoned, may mask an underlying erosion of faith. Birtherism may morph into torturism without any obvious sign of stress, but at some level people must gradually become aware that their political beliefs are more like the faith that belief in Santa will bring presents and less like the belief that kicking a rock will give you a stubbed toe.

fn1. The general phenonomen of confirmation bias (paying attention to evidence that supports your belief and disregarding contradictory evidence) is well established. The first finding of reinforcement Nyhan and Riefler find that Democrats ignore contradictory evidence, while Republicans respond in the way I described. I can’t find the study that supported this. Nyhan and Riefler cite earlier research by Redlawski that I haven’t been able to find.

Reasons to be cheerful (Part 1): Peak gasoline

There are plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the prospects of stabilising the global climate. The failure at Copenhagen (partly, but far from wholly, redressed in the subsequent meeting at Cancun) means that a binding international agreement, let alone an effective international trading scheme, is a long way off. The political right, at least in English-speaking countries, has deepened its commitment to anti-science delusionism. And (regardless of views on its merits) the prospect of a significant contribution from nuclear power has pretty much disappeared, at least for the next decade or so, following Fukushima and the failure of the US ‘nuclear renaissance’.

But there’s also some striking good news. Most important is the arrival of ‘peak gasoline’ in the US. US gasoline consumption peaked in 2006 and was about 8 per cent below the peak in 2010. Consumption per person has fallen more than 10 per cent.
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Weathervanes

Tony Abbott, who denounced the government’s very mild pause on indexing the $150k threshold for access to Family Tax Payments as “class warfare”, has previously supported identical attacks on “middle class welfare“. Nothing surprising there: Abbott has shown himself absolutely willing to say whatever he thinks his audience wants to hear on the day. Unfortunately, exactly the same is true of Julia Gillard. Neither seems to think much before committing themselves to whatever thought bubble looks good on the day (cash for clunkers, tax levies for parental leave etc)

By comparison with these two, Wayne Swan and Joe Hockey, among other potential successors, look like stellar intellects and conviction politicians. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are in a whole different universe. As I’ve said before, the current contenders to rule Australia are living disproof of the adage that we get the government we deserve. We didn’t ask for Gillard, and the only alternative we were offered was Abbott. What a choice!

Wake-up call, part II: revenge of the snooze button?

A while ago I wrote a post responding to a Lowy Institute blurb for a new book by Michael Wesley, called There goes the Neighborhood and described as ‘A loud and clear wake-up call to Australians’. In response, I said that ‘At the global level it’s hard to think of a time when we have been less threatened, at least within living memory’, and concluded ‘unless commenters can point to something I’ve missed, I’m going back to sleep’.

Michael Wesley has now responded, and sent me a copy of the book, which I hadn’t read when I responded to the blurb. It turns out that he agrees with me that most of the threats that worried us in the past have dissipated. Also, as I surmised, his main concern is about the way in which the rise of India and China changes our strategic environment. He concludes

In short, we’re entering a world not of threats but of agonising choices that will come at us constantly. My bet is that we’ll look back on the vanished threats that Quiggin talks about with nostalgia for a world that all seemed so simple.

I agree with Wesley that the rise of India and China makes life more complicated in important ways. In the past, our foreign policy consisted, in essence, of the US alliance. That alliance gave us some protection against our local fears, most notably with respect to Indonesia, while also exposing us to some big costs (the need to join faraway wars in which we had no say) and an increased risk of nuclear annihilation, which faded away along with the Cold War, though it hasn’t disappeared.

In the new world, Wesley correctly argues, an uncritical adherence to the US alliance would be a disaster, particularly in the event of a major dispute between the US and China. I agree, and I think most serious foreign policy types already know this. Kevin Rudd’s recent visit to Washington seemed to be devoted, in large measure, to hosing down any expectation that Australia would line up with the US against China in any future dispute (a much more sophisticated line than the updated “All the way with LBJ” line, typically repeated by visiting PMs, up to and including Gillard). Even under the Howard government, generally gung-ho about the US, our diplomats sent the same kind of message from time to time.

Wesley also wants the Australian public to be more engaged and informed, pointing to the deplorable ignorance and anti-Indonesian prejudice surrounding the Schapelle Corby case. Actually, I think this was a good learning experience – most people eventually worked out that, while she cut a sympathetic figure in prison dress, Corby was given a fair trial, (if fact, the Indonesian courts had bent over backwards to give her justice, admitting evidence that would never be allowed in Australia)[1]. Australians are gradually adjusting to the idea of Indonesia as a friendly neighbor rather than a foreign threat. Even so, I think they are well justified in leaving to the experts the kind of diplomacy involved in telling three great powers what they want to hear, while committing ourselves to none of them.

 

fn1. While I’m on this, I’ll welcome the news that the death sentence imposed on Scott Rush has been commuted. This case was a far worse travesty of justice than anything in Corby’s case, but those most to blame were the Australian Federal Police, who sent Rush to possible death in Indonesia, rather than warning him off (as his parents begged them to do) or arresting him on arrival in Australia (which would have reduced their chances of convicting the ringleaders).

Economists for the price mechanism

I had a call from a local business organization asking if I would talk at a breakfast about the carbon tax to be held in a few eeks. The date was fine, so I said yes, then came the kicker – they wanted an economist on each side of the issue. The organizer said they had plenty of economists willing to speak for the tax, but they couldn’t find any willing to speak against it. I gamely offerd to present the case for an emissions trading scheme as opposed to a tax (even though, at the moment, I lean to a tax). But they wanted an actual opponent of any kind of carbon price, who was also an economist. This has proved to be impossible, which is pretty impressive testimony to the quality of the Queensland economics profession, and to the underappreciated fact that economists are among the strongest supporters of good environmental policy.