The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Science Debate 2012 Questions for the Presidential Candidates

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 26, 2012

Last March I passed on the news that Science Debate 2012 was looking for questions to ask the U.S. presidential candidates, and now the questions are here!  In case you don’t know, the whole purpose of Science Debate is to put questions of scientific, engineering, and technological importance into the political debate; considering as how important these issues are and will be in the 21st-century, I think it is more than appropriate to hold our political candidates accountable on such matters.  Take a look at the Science Debate press release and questions:

Science Debate 2012 Press Release

The Top American Science Questions in 2012

“Whenever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.”

Science now affects every aspect of life and is an increasingly important topic in national policymaking.

ScienceDebate.org invited thousands of scientists, engineers and concerned citizens to submit what they felt were the the most important science questions facing the nation that the candidates for president should be debating on the campaign trail.

ScienceDebate then worked with the leading US science and engineering organizations listed at left to refine the questions and arrive at a universal consensus on what the most important science policy questions facing the United States are in 2012.

Innovation | Climate Change | Research and the Future | Pandemics and Biosecurity
Education | Energy | Food | Fresh Water | The Internet | Ocean Health
Science in Public Policy | Space | Critical Natural Resources | Vaccination and Public Health

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“How to Save the Polar Bears” Global Warming Panel from SkepchickCon 2012

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 17, 2012

Now that I’m back from TAM 2012, I am finally catching up on some blogging.  In this post, I wanted to share a rough transcript I made of another panel I saw the weekend before TAM at Convergence/SkepchickCon 2012 titled “How to Save the Polar Bears” – as the name implies, the subject was on how to address questions of the effects of global warming as well as climate change denialism.  Read on…

How to Save the Polar Bears

with Greg Laden, Shawn Otto, Maggie Koerth-Baker, John Abraham, and Desiree Schell (moderator)

Introductions

Desiree: Let’s all commit now that climate change is indeed a real thing that is occurring. Greg, can you start with telling us the effects of climate change?

Greg: I’ll first talk about the effects of all the CO2 being released. The first effect is that it is warmer. For example, we are now experiencing the warmest year on record (so far). There are also likely to be drastic shifts in the weather patterns due to the amount of heat the atmosphere can hold. It probably means in more areas more rain in short bursts – so more droughts interrupted by heavy rains.

Also, the oceans will become more acidic, so organisms which are affected by high acid water will be hurt.

Finally, see level rise… glaciers melt, water expands, so the ocean level goes up. It could be a big factor in the short term.

Desiree: there are other more tangible effects like on agriculture.

Greg: yes, for example, many trees are getting killed by parasites because those parasites valve moved into regions (due to climate change) they never were before. Also, plants are drying out due to drought and this is leading to a lot of nasty wildfires.

People think that climate change effects is a future thing, but since the 1970s we have seen agricultural failures and desertification which are likely already linked to climate change. It is currently occurring.

Desiree: one thing that might change is disease patterns.

Greg: yes, many disease patterns have changed. Most epidemic diseases we as humans experience are due to things we have changed about our environment.

We have become a bit complacent about diseases, because in the 1930s we developed antibiotics. The problem is with the changes we are making now due to climate change, these disease effects are not so easily fought.

Desiree: Maggie, can you speak to power usage?

Maggie: the biggest energy usage we have now is buildings, more than transportation, and we use most of that energy to perfect our indoor climate (AC) which affects the outdoor climate, and so on. This also affects our power grids, because there is an increase in demand for electricity due to the higher temperatures. And the grid is much more sensitive than people think, and in these extremes you can get blackouts.

Desiree: Shawn, what was the political response to these issues?

Shawn: Nothing. An attempt was made in 2010 to address these issues, but about 500 million dollars was poured into Congress by the energy lobbyists to defeat any kind of climate bill. And the Obama administration had to make a calculated decision to go with healthcare reform instead.

There have been many on the right who have attempted to downplay climate change mitigation. Many people are pushing a “teach the controversy” argument against the teaching of climate change science. They wish to replace political opinion with actual science. There have been political attempts to make sea level rise “illegal” – North Carolina almost passed a bill making it illegal for communities to consider the effect of sea level rise unless the legislation gives prior permission, and if they do the community cannot go with the science
(about 1 meter in a century) but instead about 8 inches.

Virginia recently followed suit, saying we cannot talk about “sea level rise” but “frequent flooding” instead. This kind of throwing up political smokescreens is what is going on now.

In a way, you cannot blame the (public) corporations for this so much because they are required by law to pursue profits for shareholders on quarterly basis. So money drives a lot of it.

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Cognitive Dissonance in Partisan Politics: The Case of Gas Prices

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 9, 2012

In a follow up to my recent posts (here and here) on the issue of rising U.S. gas prices and how the President and Congress really have little power to affect them, despite the belief by some that they do, I heard an excellent piece on NPR this morning about this very subject.  Of course, in NPR fashion, they went a bit deeper and actually started to discuss in a scientific fashion why it is that Republicans are blaming President Obama for higher gas prices now whereas a few years ago it was Democrats blaming then President Bush for higher gas prices.  Check it out…

Partisan Psychology: Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?

Charlie Reidel/AP — President Bush and then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry shake hands at the end of a presidential debate in 2004 in St. Louis. Researchers want to better understand why partisans’ views of the facts change in light of their political loyalties.

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard. …

Click here to read the entire story

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President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 27, 2012

I was inspired to write the following JREF Swift blog post as a result of my earlier posts (here and here) on the question of gasoline prices in the United States and the powers (perceived or real) of the U.S. president.  I hope you find it enlightening…

President Obama, God, and Agency Where None Exists

On my blog, I recently put together a post – Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction – about higher gas prices and how people are blaming President Obama for it.  As I pointed out there, Republicans blaming him for the increase in the price of gasoline (and oil in general) are wrong for the same reason as when Democrats blamed former President Bush back in 2007: the President doesn’t really have that much power to influence oil and gasoline prices.

So, if it is true that no such power exists for the leaders of our government to affect the price at the pump (and that is true, as the prices are set more by market factors such as global supply and demand of oil), why is it that people want to lay blame upon our mostly blameless leaders?  I struggled with the answer to this question for some time, but I think I have finally hit upon a possible answer: many people, either consciously or not, attribute powers to the President of the United States and Congress that simply do not exist.

And that asks the next obvious question: why do people attribute such powers to our political leaders?  Why is it that many of us assign almost god-like abilities to our decidedly non-god-like and wholly fallible authority figures?

I think the answer is multi-faceted and can give some interesting insights into how we think about a lot of things, especially regarding politically oriented topics.  In addition, an analysis of this topic can lead us into a deeper discussion of a philosophical concept known as “agency”.

First, I think (somewhat cynically) that there are some, if not many, politicians in government who, either actively or inactively, encourage the notion that they have more power than they are in reality.  After all, this is one of the reasons why people vote for candidates running for political office: because they make promises and we expect them to deliver on those promises, whether or not those promises are in any way, shape, or form realistic to achieve.  This also goes for the various subsidiaries which surround the government, such as lobbying groups, political action committees, etc.  But it’s too easy to stop there.

Second, I think that in many ways we are somewhat hard-wired to make inferences to the existence of things which are not there.  In philosophy, this is sometimes referred to as “agency”, where we assign some kind of powers and abilities to an entity through our beliefs about that entity or our behavior towards it.  For example, how many of us have been in the middle of some very important work on the computer when suddenly the program crashes?  No doubt that many of us then engaged in a certain amount of cursing at (not necessarily about) the computer, as if it could not only hear but understand us.  (Aside: my wife works with computers for her career, and she will swear up and down that “they know what we’re thinking”)  The computer itself is real enough, but what about the agency which we assign to it?

But when you step back and think about it, it’s downright silly to rant and rave at the computer.  The most obvious reason for this is that it simply doesn’t work.  Yell at the computer all you want, but that won’t fix the problem; actually trying to solve the relevant hardware and/or software problem will fix things.  The other reason is that, let’s face it, at the end of the day the computer is simply a collection of circuits, wire, switches, and assorted electronics.  Does it really have a mind with which to interact?  The answer, so far with today’s common technology, is a negative, yet for some reason we engage with the computer as if it did have such a mind.  And in so doing, we assign agency to the computer. …

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Politics and Gas Prices Redux: “Obama Has Doubled the Cost of Gas”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 17, 2012

As a brief follow up to my recent post titled Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction, I wanted to pass along some deeper analysis that my fellow skeptical blogger Phil over at Skeptic Money did.  It puts a bit more meat on the bones of my previous argument that (duh!) the President of the United States actually has very little power to affect the price of gasoline at the pump.  Read on…

Obama Has Doubled The Cost Of Gas

Blog idea from The Skeptical Teacher. [That’s me :)]

This is one of the new right-wing talking points. The interesting point is that it’s true.  Well, the part that the cost of gasoline going up.  However, Obama had nothing to do with it.

“Gas prices since Obama took office have risen by 103.79 percent. No other presidents in recent years have struggled as much with soaring oil prices.” – US News

Here is a graph from DShort.com.

Notice the green line.  It is the price of oil.  In 2008 while the recession was going strong the price of oil was bid up to almost $150 per barrel by crazed speculators.  When the speculators faced the fact of decreased demand due to a global recession the price of oil collapsed to around $40 per barrel.  The result is a dramatic drop in the cost of all things that come from oil – including gasoline.

Obama took office on January 20, 2009 at the very bottom of the price drop.  Many countries are doing much better now than in 2008-9 and global demand has increased.

Just the other day someone told me that the price of oil was going up because Obama was limiting the production of oil.  I thought he was full of crap so I went and searched out the facts for myself.  If you ever want data on energy production go to eia.gov.

I found this specific data that shows US Crude Oil production.  In 2008 (The year before Obama became president) the US produced 4,950,000 barrels per day.  In 2011 the US produced 5,659,000 barrels per day.  An increase of 14.3%.

They also claimed that Obama has reduced off shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.  In 2008 The US produced 1,152,000 barrels per day and in 2011 it was 1,318,000.  Wrong on both accounts.

Their third claim was that more off shore drilling would reduce the cost of gasoline and maybe back to what it was 3 years ago.  The US produced 5,659,000 barrels per day in 2011 and 23% (1,318,000 / 5,659,000) from the Gulf.  US oil production is about 11.6% of the worlds total oil supply.  If the Gulf is 23% of this total and you doubled this amount (this could take 10-20 years) then that would increase world production by less than 3%.  I’m sure that this hypathetical and dramatic increase would lower the cost of gas.  However, I would guess by $0.10 to $0.15 per gallon. [emphasis added]

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Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 12, 2012

I don’t usually post on economic issues, but I wanted to say a few things regarding the recent brouhaha regarding higher-than-usual gasoline prices in the United States.  The issue has become heavy political fodder due to this being a presidential election year, and there have been a number of dubious claims made on the matter.  So, to help sort fact from fiction on this issue, I would like to reference the following well-written article from Paul Brandus at The Week.

While there are a number of excellent points made throughout the article, I wanted to focus on the big #1 myth: the notion that the president of the United States has some kind of magical ability to control the price of gasoline…

Why you’re wrong about gas prices and politics

I recently wrote about the many myths and misunderstandings Americans have about gas prices, oil companies, and the presidency. A few folks got upset because the facts and figures I mentioned weren’t what they wanted to hear. But as John Adams said: “Facts are stubborn things.” With that in mind, here are a few more myths and misunderstandings — about gasoline, renewable energy, politicians — and the facts:

Myth #1: Presidents have major power over gas prices
Gasoline prices have more than doubled on Obama’s watch, from $1.89 on Inauguration Day in 2009 to last week’s $3.93 (AAA data). That’s an increase of 107 percent. But guess what? Gas prices skyrocketed 387 percent between 2002 and 2008, when the average price of regular went from $1.06 to $4.11, before dropping again before Obama took office.

Chart from Doug Short

When gas prices exploded from 2002 to 2008, Democrats — including then-Sen. Obama — were wrong to blame George W. Bush, just as Republicans are wrong to blame Obama for the 107 percent jump since 2009. So who can we blame? The “blame,” if that’s the word, lies largely with the ever-changing market cycles of supply and demand — not just in the U.S., but around the world.  I know, I know. It would be so much simpler if you could just blame one person for the rise in global commodity prices. But that’s not how it works. Sorry.

I find this kind of thinking, the willingness to blame those in power for whatever calamity that happens to befall you at any given time, to be fascinating.  I remember when gas prices were high back in 2007 and people were blaming then President Bush; and now some people are blaming President Obama.  It’s almost as if these folks, in their own minds, grant some kind of god-like powers to the president once they are elected; and of course our leaders do not have such powers.  I suppose it is a way of coping with the uncertainty in the world: rather than admit the reality that even our most powerful leaders are often quite powerless (and the implication that we, as individuals, have even less power than we thought) against the random nature of the universe, many people would make up a fiction that “they” (insert spooky music) are behind it all and to blame; so if we can only get “them” out of power, then things will automatically get better.  Such thinking is strikingly similar to that employed by many conspiracy theorists.

If you find yourself in this mode of thinking, I’ve got a news flash for you: reality doesn’t give a damn what you think; it doesn’t give a damn what the president thinks.  And casting blame hither and yon will do nothing to change that.  Sorry to burst your bubble.

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How to Always Pick a Winning Stock

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 21, 2010

This time of year, money is on a lot of people’s minds.  And especially with the crummy economy, it is REALLY on people’s minds.  Unfortunately, this is an environment which is ripe for various kinds of money-related scams.  In that spirit, I wanted to share with you all an excellent blog post by my skeptical colleague Phil Ferguson over at the Skeptic Money blog. It’s all about those schemes to “pick winning stocks” and whatnot; I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just pass along Phil’s post…

How To Pick Winning Stock Every Time – The Skeptics’ Way

Today I will show you how great stock pickers are able to find the winners – every time.  Now when you get a tip via a call or an e-mail from a broker you will know how they do it.  Now you can do it too.  If you use this same method you can guarantee a correct prediction on a stock.  With this system you can win every time.

I found this video from Darren Brown.  He calls it the system and I will stick with that name.  He uses it on horses but, I will tell you how to do it with stocks.  It is even better with stock because they can only go up or down.  It is so easy – it will blow your mind.  The same secrets apply to stocks as it does for horses.  Watch this video to see how it works.  Don’t skip ahead… YOU NEED to see how well this works. …

And yes, there IS an angle to this whole thing, but to see the angle read all the way through to the end of Phil’s post plus watch the accompanying videos.  However, for those of you who are a bit ADD, I’ll skip to the end:

… Someone had to win with each bet.  A stock picker can do the same thing.  They will call dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people.  They will tell half of the people that a given stock will go up and the other half will be told that the same stock will go down.  Those that lose never get called again.  The winners are called again and get a new stock tip.  So with just 16 people to start with a stock picker can get 4 in a row for one lucky person.  Now that person will do just about anything.  Even borrow money from friends.  They may or may not make money.  It does not matter to the broker.  Each time you buy or sell a stock, you make will make the broker money.

Now, when someone calls you with a hot stock tip, you will know what to do – RUN!

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Noah’s Ark Theme Park in KY: Bad Science & Bad Economics

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 17, 2010

I’ve recently found out that the state of my youth, good ol’ Kentucky, has decided to make a theme park based upon Noah’s Ark. You might think this is no big deal, and I would normally agree, except that the organization behind this new theme park, the creationist outfit called Answers In Genesis, wants to set up the Noah’s Ark attraction – known as Ark Encounter – as an expression of reality.  I’m sorry, but this kind of strikes me as trying to claim that Disney World is showing kids the “real” world… 😉

Okay, enough snark, let me be serious for the rest of the post.  I know that Kentucky is a state awash in Christian fundamentalism, along with all the things that go along with that – such as young-earth creationism (YEC). This is evidenced by the fact that Kentucky is host to the Creation Museum, which is devoted to advancing the “reality” of YEC as viewed by the Biblical interpretation put forth by Answers In Genesis (such as that humans & dinosaurs lived at the same time – yeah, like in “The Flintstones”!).  So this is fertile ground for creationism & all the associated pseudoscience that goes along with it, and the people behind the Noah’s Ark project know it.

In this post, I’m not going to argue that creationism is bad science, non-science, or just plain pseudoscience, though it clearly is all of those. Rather, I’m going to argue that – despite the claims by KY Gov. Steve Beshear to the contrary – establishing Kentucky as a state known for harboring & encouraging non-science is actually a bad thing economically for the Commonwealth.

The Governor argues that Ark Encounter will create many jobs, which is undoubtedly true.  It will require lots of people to work construction over the next few years to build it, and then of course there are the jobs created for those who will work in the park once it is complete.  However, as many critics have pointed out, the vast majority of that second class of jobs will tend to be low-skill, low-paying, and seasonal positions, many of which are likely to be part time…

Ark incentives: cheap jobs, poor state image

… Despite some progress in economic development, Kentucky continues to use tax incentives in pursuit of mostly low-paying, part-time seasonal jobs that would further lower the state’s average wage and do little to increase the demand of higher education. This is similar to past shortsighted subsidies of chicken processing plants and customer call centers.

We understand that even low-paying jobs are welcome while rebounding from a recession and heading into an election year.

But these incentives could have been awarded without Gov. Steve Beshear’s public embrace of an expansion of the Creation Museum — a project rooted in outright opposition to science.

Hostility to science, knowledge and education does little to attract the kind of employers that will provide good-paying jobs with a future. …

I have to agree with this criticism.  The fact of the matter is that if the Commonwealth of Kentucky wants to make good long-term economic development decisions, they need to foster an environment which encourages higher-paying jobs, a college & university-educated workforce, and – yes – an acceptance of & investment in science.  After all, modern science – evolution included – has yielded a host of technologies & economic development which has improved the standard of living for all of us drastically in the last couple of centuries.  Whereas creationist pseudoscience seems to be only good for producing reality-challenged theme parks that provide crummy jobs and encourages ignorance of science.

The bottom line is this, folks: real science & its associated discoveries, including evolution, creates new technologies which drives the economy, creating higher paying jobs, a better cost of living, and a more educated workforce.  If you want to do right by the economy, especially in the long term, encourage science & science education and invest in scientific research.  If the state of Kentucky continues on this path, then they shouldn’t be surprised when more lucrative, science-oriented companies & institutions look to base their operations elsewhere, taking the good jobs with them.

Too bad this lesson seems to be lost on Kentucky’s political leaders; they seem to be stuck on appeasing religious fundamentalists as a way of winning votes.  Too bad that won’t help solve the actual economic problem.

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XKCD Uses “The Economic Argument” Against the Paranormal

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 29, 2010

I just ran across this today, and I think it’s a hilarious way to make the point about why it is that so much pseudoscientific & paranormal flummery is basically useless.  Note: make sure to go to the XKCD website and actually put your mouse over the cartoon to get a special, secret message 🙂

Posted in economics, humor, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bjorn Lomborg, a.k.a. the “Skeptical Environmentalist”, Now Says Global Warming is a Chief Concern for the World

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 1, 2010

Wow, what a difference a decade makes.  Those of us who have been following the science of climate change & global warming for the last ten years will recall a book that came out in 2001 titled “The Skeptical Environmentalist” – authored by an economist named Bjorn Lomborg. This book was widely perceived by many to have been the opening shot in what some call the modern “climate wars”; Lomborg was viewed as someone who looked at the growing scientific consensus on global warming and dismissed it.  Because of this, for quite some time, Lomborg has been somewhat of a folk hero to global warming deniers

Well, in a turnabout which rings of truth being stranger than fiction, Bjorn Lomborg is now changing his mind on the issue: he now states publicly, in a new book coming out later this month, that human-induced global warming is “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront”.  In fact, he is even proposing a multi-billion dollar international fund to tackle the problem directly!

Read more about this in the following Guardian article on the matter…

Bjørn Lomborg: $100bn a year needed to fight climate change

The world’s most high-profile climate change sceptic is to declare that global warming is “undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today” and “a challenge humanity must confront”, in an apparent U-turn that will give a huge boost to the embattled environmental lobby.

Bjørn Lomborg, the self-styled “sceptical environmentalist” once compared to Adolf Hitler by the UN’s climate chief, is famous for attacking climate scientists, campaigners, the media and others for exaggerating the rate of global warming and its effects on humans, and the costly waste of policies to stop the problem.

But in a new book to be published next month, Lomborg will call for tens of billions of dollars a year to be invested in tackling climate change. “Investing $100bn annually would mean that we could essentially resolve the climate change problem by the end of this century,” the book concludes. …

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