Sep 03

Reality is viciously sexist

Better Identification of Viking Corpses Reveals: Half of the Warriors Were Female insists an article at tor.com. It’s complete bullshit.

What you find when you read the linked article is an obvious, though as it turns out a superficial problem. The linked research doesn’t say what the article claims. What it establishes is that a hair less than half of Viking migrants were female, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. The leap from that to “half the warriors were female” is unjustified and quite large.

There’s a deeper problem the article is trying to ignore or gaslight out of existence: reality is, at least where pre-gunpowder weapons are involved, viciously sexist.

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Aug 15

Alien cat is alien

One of the reasons I like cats is because I find it enjoyable to try to model their thought processes by observing their behavior. They’re like furry aliens, just enough like us that a limited degree of communication (mostly emotional) is possible.

Just now I’m contemplating a recent change in the behavior of our new cat, Zola. Recent as in the last couple of days. Some kind of switch has flipped.

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Jun 23

How to train a cat for companionship

Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.

My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.

Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.

A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.

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Jun 06

Hoping for the crazy

The biggest non-story that should be in the news right now, but isn’t, is the collapse of anthropogenic-global-warming “science” into rubble. Global average temperature has been flat for between 15 and 17 years, depending on how you interpret the 1997-1998 El Nino event. Recently GAT, perking along its merry level way, has fallen out of the bottom of the range of predictions made by the climate modelers at the IPCC. By the normal 95%-confidence standards of scientific confirmation, the IPCC’s disaster scenarios – the basis for, among other things, carbon taxes and the EPA’s coming shutdown-by-impossible-regulation of U.S. coal power – are now busted.

AGW alarmists have responded by actually hoping in public view that a strong El Niño event later this year will shove GAT back up into consistency with the IPCC models, rescuing their narrative.

This…this is hoping for the crazy. Let me count the ways:

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May 15

Evaporative cooling and AGW

Earlier this evening an Instapundit reference reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s insightful essay Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, in which he uses a clever physics analogy to explain why cult-like groups often respond to strong evidence against their core beliefs by becoming more fanatical.

Glen Reynolds used the reference to take a swipe at what political feminism has become, but a more interesting example occurred to me. I think AGW (anthropogenic global warming) alarmism is beginning to undergo some serious evaporative cooling. Let’s examine the evidence, how it might fit Yudkowsky’s model, and what predictions it implies.

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Mar 08

Which way is north on your new planet?

So, here you are in your starship, happily settling into orbit around an Earthlike world you intend to survey for colonization. You start mapping, and are immediately presented with a small but vexing question: which rotational pole should you designate as ‘North’?

There are a surprisingly large number of ways one could answer this question. I shall wander through them in this essay, which is really about the linguistic and emotive significance of compass-direction words as humans use them. Then I shall suggest a pragmatic resolution.

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Mar 06

Causes and implications of the pause

That is the title of a paper attempting to explain (away) the 17-year nothing that happened while CAGW models were predicting warming driven by increasing CO2. CO2 increased. Measured GAT did not.

Here’s the money quote: “The most recent climate model simulations used in the AR5 indicate that the warming stagnation since 1998 is no longer consistent with model projections even at the 2% confidence level.”

That is an establishment climatologist’s cautious scientist-speak for “The IPCC’s anthropogenic-global-warming models are fatally broken. Kaput. Busted.”

I told you so. I told you so. I told you so!

I even predicted it would happen this year, yesterday on my Ask Me Anything on Slashdot. This wasn’t actually brave of me: the Economist noticed that the GAT trend was about to fall to worse than 5% fit to the IPCC models six months ago.

Here is my next prediction – and remember, I have been consistently right about these. The next phase of the comedy will feature increasingly frantic attempts to bolt epicycles onto the models. These epicycles will have names like “ENSO”, “standing wave” and “Atlantic Oscillation”.

All these attempts will fail, both predictively and retrodictively. It’s junk science all the way down.

Feb 13

Generative science

I’m thinking about writing another book. I won’t disclose the title or topic yet, but there’s a bit of research for it I think can be usefully crowdsourced, and may also give a clue about the book for those of you interested.

I’ve written before about the difference between descriptive and generative theories. To recap and simplify, a descriptive theory accounts for what is; a generative theory finds causal regularities beneath a descriptive account and predicts consequences not yet observed.

Now I want to zero in on a parallel difference among entire sciences. Some scientific fields – like, say, evolutionary biology – are tremendously productive of models and insights that can be applied elsewhere. On the other hand, some other sciences – like, say, astronomy – seldom export ideas or models.

Note that while it is appropriate to think of sciences that export lots of ideas as ‘generative’, the class of sciences that don’t are not merely descriptive. Astronomy, for example, has lots of generative theory inside it; astrophysics, for example makes predictions about stellar spectra and elemental abundances. But astronomy as a whole is not generative because none of its theory really informs anything outside astronomy.

So I’m going to start with a (non-exhaustive) list of scientific fields, indicating roughly how generative I think they are and what if anything they export. I invite additions and corrections from my readers.

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Jan 29

Junk science double fail

Two bits of science news appeared on my radar today with not much in common except that they’re both exceedingly bad news for the political class. That more or less guarantees that they’ll get poor or nonexistent coverage in the mainstream media and is a good enough reason for me to write about them.

First, the British Meteorological Service and the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia are now admitting that global warming stopped in 1997 – there’s been no net rise in the Earth’s temperature in 15 years. And no, this isn’t an illusion produced by the 1997 El Nino peak – if you look at the chart accompanying the article you’ll see that GAT has dropped to pre-el-Nino levels.

The source makes this a particularly difficult pill for AGW alarmists to swallow – for of course, the CRU is the home of the infamous “team” whose work has been at the center of the panic. If they’re wrong now, what warrant do we have that they weren’t equally wrong then?

And, actually, it gets worse. Solar observations suggest we may be headed for an insolation minimum ever deeper than the one in 2008 that wiped out the entire 20th-century GAT rise – in fact, some NASA meteorologists are muttering darkly about a near-term recap of the Maunder Minimum and the Little Ice Age!

This of course, is bad news for the political class because AGW panic was so useful for raising taxes and increasing central control of the economy. The general public has been increasingly skeptical of late, but popular reaction so far has been nothing compared to what will be unleashed if it turns out the real climate problem of the next two decades is how to keep our crops from freezing.

Our other news today is of a study apparently showing that the heritability of IQ increases with age.

IQ, and its heritability, has been a major irritant to would-be social engineers. Because – no matter how much propaganda they sponsor to the effect that IQ is meaningless, or multifactoral, or the tests are culturally biased – IQ assessments done in the traditional way aimed at approximating Spearman’s g keep turning out to be about the single most valuable statistical measure for predicting not just academic performance but all kinds of other interesting things like lifetime earnings and propensity to criminality.

This new result is another turn of the screw. Because now it turns out that while you can raise childrens’ measured IQ with all the usual nostrums (better family circumstances, intensive schooling, etc) the effects of such interventions vanish in the adults that the children become. A particularly strong finding is that while adoptive children tend towards the IQ distribution of their foster families, the adults they become revert to the IQ distribution of their biological families.

This matters because poverty is correlated with and often caused by low intelligence. This is even more true today than it used to be, because we have a whole meritocratic apparatus aimed at scooping up poor-but-bright kids and tracking them into good schools and good jobs so they don’t stay poor. (And, as cynical as I sound in the rest of this post, be in no doubt that I think this meritocratic apparatus is a good thing and among the proudest achievements of our civilization.)

But: Our political class is heavily invested in the ideology that all the factors driving poverty are environmental. Because that means we can social-engineer our way to an egalitarian utopia by methods which – surprise! justify raising taxes and increasing central control of the economy. It’s bad news for them that adult IQ is genetically heritable and intractable to the sorts of interventions that employ thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats and busybodies.

To be fair, neither the prospect of a cooling earth nor the intractability of IQ are good news for the rest of us either. It would be nicer, in many ways, if we really lived in the political class’s fantasy world – the place where all our troubles are self-created, there’s always someone to blame, and always a political fix.

But at least, since we don’t live in that fantasy world, we can tell the political class to stuff its coercive utopianism up its own ass and demand our liberty back.

Nov 27

Seven Eight Warning Signs of Junk Science

I’ve written before about scientific error cascades and the pernicious things that happen when junk science becomes the focus or rationale of a political crusade.

The worst example of this sort of thing in my lifetime, and arguably in the entire history of science, has been the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) panic. Now that the wheels are falling off that juggernaut, I’m starting to hear ordinary people around me wonder how I knew it was bullshit and hot air so much in advance…

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Sep 08

Ecoforming and 1493

I enjoy creating useful neologisms. I’ve floated several on this blog: kafkatrapping, collabortage, politicism, chomskyism, and prospiracy. One could argue that my take on the term “error cascade” is neologistic.

Today, another one: “ecoforming”. By analogy with “terraforming”, this is what humans do when they deliberately modify an ecology to suit their purposes. The term is intended to include the introduction of non-native species, the deliberate use of fire as a technique for ground-clearing, and the sculpting of landscapes by selective planting and suppression of local wild flora, but to exclude cultivation of domesticated plants.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing because I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled 1493 by Charles C. Mann. This is a history of what he calls the “Columbian exchange” (borrowing the term from pioneering biohistorian Alfred W. Crosby), the transplantation of New World species to the Old World and vice-versa after Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Mann makes a persuasive case that the shock of that contact has been reverberating through the Earth’s biosphere ever since, reshaping human societies and much else in its wake. He tells well-known stories such as the way that the introduction of the potato to Europe enabled the rise in population that led to the Industrial Revolution. Also, many more (previously) obscure ones, such as the way that the introduction of American food plants produced ecological catastrophe in China, leading to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

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May 18

Maybe science is my religion, after all

In a recent comment thread, I wrote that I am revolted by the corruption and politicization of science. After I wrote that, I experienced a moment of introspective surprise during which I realized that my feelings about people who commit scientific fraud for personal or political ends are in tone and intensity very much like a deeply religious person’s feelings about people who commit sacrilege.

This realization made me quite uncomfortable. I’m a hard-shell rationalist; what I have in my life that corresponds to religion I carefully chose to not involve me in faith-holding or the other kinds of emotional attachments that religious people form as a matter of course. I regard religion, in the sense the term is normally used, as a dangerous form of collective insanity – and I want above all to be sane.

Because I felt uncomfortable, I decided that I needed to perform the exercise I have elsewhere described as killing the Buddha – in this case, killing the premise that I am not like a religious person by examining and embracing all the ways that my relationship to science makes me like one.

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Aug 24

Three kinds of teleology

Some comments on my last post sidetracked into a discussion of evolution, teleology and design and under what circumstances the language of “purpose” or “intention” can reasonably applied to a natural system. I’ve had a new insight while thinking about that discussion, so I’m going to write about it a bit more. And yes, I am aware that this discussion may appear to overlap with Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance, but I’m actually addressing a different set of issues.

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Jun 19

A Specter is Haunting Genetics

Had my life gone a little differently, I might have been a molecular geneticist and hip-deep in what is now called bioinformatics. When I was twelve or thirteen or so I came to intellectual grips with the fact that I have congenital cerebral palsy; shortly thereafter I dove into the science of congenital defects, developmental biology, and from there into genetics. Eventually I taught myself a fair chunk of organic chemistry before becoming fascinated by linguistics and theoretical mathematics, and a few twists and turns from there got me into software engineering; but my interest in genetics and human developmental biology didn’t cease so much as become pushed into the background. I give this background to explain why I’ve been paying closer attention to genetics than most people do ever since.

In the wake of the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, I’ve seen three or four forward-looking articles about the implications of cheap genomic analysis (most recently a quite good one in The Economist) all of which are are haunted by a common fear. It’s almost like they’re written to a template; glowing projections of accelerated drug discovery, personalized medicine, and deep insight into the nature of humanity, ended on a worried note about what we’ll find when we discover just how much of human variation is genetically rather than environmentally controlled. Sometimes the prognosticator can only bring himself to drop hints, but the braver ones come out and ask the question: what if it turns out that genetic differences among races are real and actually matter?

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Apr 12

Adventures in feline ethology, part three

A while back, in Sugar and the Bathroom Demon, I blogged about the knotty questions of evolutionary biology and ethology that engage me when I interact with my cat. I returned to this theme in The Nose of Peace.

And today I have something new to report. My cat, at the age of 16, has noticed something novel in the world: the cat in the mirror. This is interesting because it feeds into a fascinating theory: we produce cognitive uplift in our pets.

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Mar 04

Lies and consequences

In the horrible-inevitability department: Darwin Foes Add Warming to Targets.

My first thought when I read this was: “Creationists opposing AGW hysteria? Wow. So those stupid fucks are good for something after all.”

My second thought was: “It’d be a damn shame if AGW ends up discrediting good science with the public, but if it happens the scientific establishment has only itself to blame for not busting the AGW fraud first.”

In fact, I don’t think that bad outcome is likely to happen, for reasons I explained in Will the AGW fraud discredit science?. But this news story is a warning to all scientists: if you don’t want creationists to get traction, you can’t just treat this as someone else’s problem. You have to clean house. You have tolerated liars and rascals like Phil Jones and Rajendra Pachauri in your midst too long; you need to throw them out.

A diplomatic way for any random professional society to do this would be to demand that all climate science must be held to the strictest standards of methodological scrutiny. All data, including primary un-“corrected” datasets, must be available for auditing by third parties. All modeling code must be published. The assumptions made in data reduction and smoothing must be an explicitly documented part of the work product.

These requirements would kill off AGW alarmism as surely as a bullet through the head. But its credibility is already collapsing; the rising issue, now, is to prevent collateral damage from the scientific community’s failure to insist on them sooner. Every day you delay will strengthen the creationists and the flat-earthers and all the other monsters begotten from the sleep of reason.

UPDATE: and, in a nice bookend, ABC follows the money, suggesting strongly that the scientific establishment has failed to clean house because alarmism is just too damn lucrative.

Mar 02

The Nose of Peace

My regular readers will know that I’m sometimes fascinated by the extent to which mammalian body language crosses species lines — and, indeed, is so well conserved that families as far apart as felids and primates can communicate in ways that are emotionally satisfying to both parties. We take this for granted, but it’s really quite remarkable when you think about it; there’s a repertoire of mammalian gestures that must have maintained consistent social meanings since the earliest mammals in the late Triassic, 200 million years ago, all the way through dizzying changes in size, encephalization and ecological niche.

My wife Cathy reminded me of another one today: the Nose of Peace. “I thought you’d enjoy this photo of a kitten and a young deer exchanging the Nose of Peace” she wrote; our label for it comes from my attempt to describe to a friend over the phone the behavior of two cats who, after quarrelling for days, decided to get along. My friend understood what was intended by “the Nose of Peace” immediately, and that term for it has since spread to several other mutual friends.

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Feb 04

Error cascade: a definition and examples

I’ve used the term “error cascade” on this blog several times, notably in referring to AGW hysteria. A commenter has asked me to explain it, and I think that’s a good idea as (a) the web sources on the concept are a bit confusing, and (b) I’ll probably use the term again — error cascades are all too common where science meets public policy.

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