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The Cause of Wildfires

Was the Camp Fire in California caused by climate change?  Was hurricane Florence caused by global warming?  These are sucker questions.  A reputable scientist might answer “maybe”.  Some scientists will patiently explain the difference between weather and climate.

Hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, and floods are all weather events, just like rainstorms and clear skies.  They are more extreme, but all weather events.  Many factors conspire to cause weather events.  Most of these are already known to scientists that study weather.  Climate change is one of these factors, but it’s a small one in the short term.

Climate is simply a long-term average of weather, an average that smooths out weather events.  It’s a mathematical abstraction.  Nevertheless, it is a real thing.

There are two almost insurmountable barriers to widespread belief in climate change.  People don’t experience climate.  That’s why they ask about extreme weather events.  Climate is outside of our experience.  Its time scale is longer than a human lifetime.  Consequently, most people don’t understand climate and are not concerned that it might change.

Understanding climate change requires predicting the future.  This is something we have done very badly.  How many predictions of flying cars have you seen?  There are many equally bad examples.  How can we trust the dire warnings of changes at the end of the century?

Scientific predictions may be better.  They use computer models of world climate, for one thing.  Many researchers around the world are making predictions in this manner.  All predictions, of course, are vulnerable to unexpected factors.  All predictions of the future cannot be verified until the future arrives.

There are some certainties, some reliable data, as well.  We do have reliable measurements of many aspects of climate change in the recent past.  They do show global warming.  We do know what caused warming in the past.  Human activity is implicated in that cause.  In fact, human activity may be the only cause.

We must take action now to slow or prevent future climate change, even if we have doubts about its reality.  Scientists must support our efforts by verifying their predictions at regular intervals.  We do need some evidence that our efforts are having some effect on future climate.



False Ideas Persist

One thing leads to another.  A false idea refuses to die out.  Instead, it changes to a new form.  It persists.  Many of the ideas presented here come from the various books and essays written by Stephen Jay Gould.

The original idea comes from evolution as described by Charles Darwin.  It was that poor people belong to a primitive human species.  We recognize it now as a false interpretation of evolution.  This false idea was held by rich people, who of course belonged to the pinnacle of human evolution.

The next version is more specific.  It agrees that poor people are members of the same human species, but argues that poor people have low intelligence.  People are poor because they have a genetic defect.  Families are poor because the gene for low intelligence is inherited.  This is also a false idea.  Intelligence tests are deeply flawed.  They have a strong cultural bias.  In fact, I learned in psychology class that intelligence tests only measure the ability to write intelligence tests.

Next, the false idea is generalized.  Low intelligence is the cause of all social ills.  Poverty, criminality, immorality, and illiteracy are all caused by low intelligence.  In a way, this list and its cause all makes sense.  It almost seems reasonable.  The only problem is that it’s incorrect.  Poor people are not stupid.  They’re poor because they don’t have enough money.  It is that simple.

Now, we come to the modern version, which has become a belief among many people.  Poor people waste their money.  They cannot budget.  They spend their money on luxuries instead of necessities.  They are too lazy to work.  All of these beliefs are false, of course.  People still laugh at the image of the “welfare queen”, a person who doesn’t exist.

These false beliefs are used to justify reducing welfare payments, placing limits on products that can be purchased by people on welfare, and adding work requirements to receipt of welfare payments.  They are also used to justify paternalistic treatment of poor people, by telling them what they need, without asking them what they want.

The common element in this chain of ideas and beliefs is a bias against poor people.  It’s a search for scientific evidence to support a pre-existing belief.  It’s just another way to blame the victim for their own condition.  It’s generalization from false ideas.  The beliefs are so powerful that scientific studies that disprove them are disregarded.  Instead, the search for scientific support goes on.


Right and Left

There was an incident last week in a Kamloops school where a teacher asked the students to classify statements as either right-wing or left-wing.  It’s still appearing in the media.  The assignment had an obvious bias.  It cited the beliefs of some of the right-wing extremists, opposite the views of some of the left-wing moderates.

It is possible to do better than this by considering the ideology of right and left-wing groups, without considering extremists on either side.  To make them comparable, it’s also necessary to omit euphemisms and slogans that favour one side.  Indeed, there are other dimensions to political positions.  Some are independent of the right-left axis.  Still, this axis is still useful even if it is only one dimension of politics.

Groups on the left are often called socialist.  They advocate higher taxes along with increased government services.  They also want more government regulation of private companies and more government companies.  Their remedy for crime is improved social services.

Groups on the right are usually called conservative.  They advocate lower taxes along with reduced government services.  They want less government regulation of private companies and more private companies.  Their remedy for crime is stiffer punishment.

How does this look?


The Irony of International Trade

I find the present international trade situation to be quite ironic.

Not too long ago, the US promoted globalization.  I recall reading a book on this subject, written by Thomas Friedman.  Of course, globalization implies world trade, and requires removal of tariff barriers to trade.  In the era of globalization, the US exported products to other countries.  Some people protested against globalization at that time.  Some other countries also opposed it.  They saw it as Americanization, or wanted to protect their local industries.

It’s been quite a turnaround since then.  Now, the US wants to protect its own industries.  It imposes tariffs for that purpose.  Other countries now want removal of the tariffs to promote international trade.  Now they want globalization, whereas the US wants to prevent it.

As often happens, they are both right to some degree.  Globalization does bring some benefits to both sides.  Competition between companies in different countries does introduce efficiency to the industry, and does lead to lower prices.  Of course, some countries only want to export products to other countries.  They can’t do that.  True participation in globalization requires imports too.  In some cases, local industries may be superior to imports from other countries.  The cost of getting the product to market may be lower for local industries, for example, just because of the distance involved.  There may also be cultural or health reasons that governments invoke to prevent imports from other countries.  It is necessary to find the right balance between globalization and local industry for world trade to succeed for the benefit of all.


Life in a Communist State

A few months ago, I went on a vacation in Cuba.  It was actually a bus tour of the island.  During this tour, we heard from a number of Cuban people.  Much of what I learned about life in Cuba came from our tour guide, but we also met a doctor, a tobacco farmer, a guide at a coffee research station, a school principal, and many other ordinary people.

Cuba is following the principles of communism as enumerated by the founders of that ideology.  The economy of Cuba is tightly controlled by the government.  Karl Marx made the famous statement “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.  That’s what they are trying to accomplish in Cuba.

There are many government companies in Cuba, but few private companies.  These companies provide revenue for the government, either directly or through taxes.

People can purchase subsidized food from government stores, up to the limits stated in their ration books.  If they need more than that, they must purchase it on the open market.  People also get free health care, except that they must purchase their own drugs.  If they can’t afford to pay for drugs, neighbors will contribute towards the purchase.

Farmers must sell 90% of their produce to the government.  They can keep the remainder or sell it on the open market.  I saw cattle grazing on farm land all across Cuba.  I only found out later that the farmers don’t own those cattle.  They also don’t own the trees growing on their land.  They can’t harvest the trees for lumber, unless they fall down naturally.  Hurricane Irma was bountiful for many farmers and small landowners.

Almost everybody is employed in Cuba, with many of them working for the government.  Salaries, however, are quite low.  Not many people want to work in the coffee plantations, regardless of the salary.  The same thing holds for sugar cane plantations and tobacco fields, no doubt.

There are very few private cars in Cuba, mostly because people can’t afford them.  The old cars we saw on the streets were all taxis, part of the tourist industry.  Ordinary people there ride on buses or hitch-hike.  We saw people sheltering from the sun under bridges, waiting for rides.  They generally pay the driver for the ride.

It was only when I returned home, that I realized that I was living in a different world.  We do have some socialist facilities here.  We have free medical care, but most countries have some sort of government-operated medical care.  We also have a great deal of private enterprise.  The mixture of the two works reasonably well.  I was happy to be back home.


What the Dog Saw

I’ve been reading What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book is a collection of articles he wrote in the early years of this century.  Most of the articles are about mysteries, some obvious and some not.  He also makes a distinction between puzzles and mysteries, writing that with puzzles you have too little information, but that with mysteries you have too much information.  He tells us that some puzzles can be treated as mysteries.  Of course, when you do that, the distinction between the two disappears.

In the book, many articles are about people who analyze information and make predictions from that information.  One is about FBI profilers who develop a description of the culprit in a crime.  Once the police arrest the culprit, their prediction always seems correct.  Of course, some of them later may revise their original statements to make their predictions seem even more accurate.

Another is about intelligence services that attempt to predict what another country or its leader will do.  Some of their predictions turn out to be completely wrong.  The problem is that governments can only verify the prediction after the event has occured or has not occured.  The lesson here is that its usually impossible to forsee an event.

We also read about a professional sports scout who attempts to predict how college atheletes will perform in the professional leagues.  This prediction works quite badly, at least in the case of football quarterbacks.

Job interviewers attempt to predict how a candidate will perform on the job, assuming that people will behave the same in all situations, including the interview.  Unfortunately, this assumption is incorrect.  People’s behavior is not something fundamental about them.  They may well behave quite differently in real situations.

A stock market analyst attempts to predict what a particular security will do, based on knowledge of the company and past behavior of the security and the market itself.  Their predictions will be completely wrong whenever unexpected events occur.  Unfortunately, these events occur frequently, but cannot be anticipated.

People who analyze satellite images attempt to identify objects on the ground, without knowing what is really there.  There is an element of guesswork required.  Sometimes they guess wrong.

Pathologists who analyze manogram images attempt to identify cancer among a myriad of similar spots that are not cancers.  Their predictions are necessarily imperfect.

Clearly, there are more instances where interpretation must be done than we might expect.  Some of them predict future events, a process that can’t be verified until the event has occured.  Prediction of the future is often wrong.

Although not mentioned in the book, the quality of the information available is important, perhaps more important than the quantity of it.  In the case of a puzzle, we have some factual information, but one critical piece of factual information is missing.  The puzzle can’t be solved until that missing piece is found.  We all can tell when a puzzle has been solved.

In contrast, the information about a mystery is always incomplete and may come from unreliable sources.  It always requires interpretation by a professional.  Only another analyst can verify the prediction.  They often disagree.

As the book states, we can eliminate bad predictions by examining the type of statments made.  They are the same type used by astrologers and psychics.  This leaves us with the good style of predictions.  They still may be incorrect.

Beware of predictions is the best advice.  Sometimes, however, people or groups of people have to act with only incomplete information.  By doing this, they are taking a substantial risk.  The risk is always there.  There’s no way of getting around it.


Inside Cuba

I recently went on a tour of Cuba, a bus tour of the island that began and ended in Havana.  My photographs from this tour are now available.  Most of the people on the tour were Americans.  In fact, there was only one other Canadian in the group.

The source of these comments was my own observations, along with information given us by our Cuban tour leader.

Judging by the number of monuments and museums devoted to leaders of the revolution, Cubans do celebrate their revolution.  In particular, they celebrate Che Guevera as a war hero.

The American embargo, begun in 1960, plays a major role in the character of Cuba today.  It does block many imports that would otherwise come from the nearby USA.  For example, orange juice is almost never available at breakfast buffets featured by all the hotels.  In fact, Cubans tend to blame all failures on the embargo.

We watched a documentary on the Bay of Pigs invasion, saw the bay itself, and visited the nearby Bay of Pigs museum.  The invasion was planned by president Kennedy just after he had promised that the USA would not invade Cuba.  It was mounted by the CIA, and almost seems intended to fail.  Fail it did.  The invaders were mostly Cuban exiles, although they were trained and equipped by Americans.  All of them were captured by the Cuban military within a few days.

There are railroads all over Cuba, but no trains run on those tracks.  The rolling stock is sitting in rail yards waiting for repairs that never happen.  On the other hand, roads and highways are busy.

Many of the agricultural products have no market outside of Cuba.  Who wants sugar or tobacco now?  Bananas grow well, but they are too small for international markets.  Some crops, sugar and coffee for example, require a great deal of manual labour.  Nobody wants to do this work anymore.

Electrical power comes mostly from diesel generators.  It’s unreliable, going off almost every day.  It’s also expensive.  That’s why all of our hotel rooms had LED lights and a master switch mounted on the wall near the entrance door.

Cuba does have some oil, but it’s too high in sulfur for most uses.  Much of the crude oil and petroleum is imported from other countries.  Gasoline and diesel fuel is expensive in Cuba.

Our tour company gave us bottled water to drink.  In fact, some hotels advised their guests not to drink the tap water.  Every building seems to have rooftop water tanks.  These are filled by a water company when necessary.  Even then, the water supply in hotel rooms is unreliable.  They warn about the temperature of the hot water, but you usually get only a trickle of luke-warm water.

Socialism is the basis of the economy.  There’s only one political party.  However, according to our guide, the importance of a person’s political affiliation has been waning recently.  Still, the government operates all large enterprises.  Government corporations sell rum and cigars to tourists.  There are also many benefits of the socialist system for ordinary Cubans.  They buy food at subsidized prices and receive free health care, for example.  Unemployment is low.  However, wages are also low.  Still, there’s a great deal of support for the Cuban revolution, the socialist system, and for the government of Cuba.