Monday, May 26, 2008

Climate and the Precautionary Principle

We went to a memorial day barbeque today with several families from the ward, and I got into a debate (friendly, of course) with a brother about the greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change (whatever it's called now).
Anyway, we each had points and counterpoints. I'm a lawyer and he's a physicist, so it's not like either of us really knows what we're talking about. But I noticed that whenever I'd make a point, the response would be something like "yeah, we don't really know, but we shouldn't risk it."
I've encountered this attitude recently as I wrote my final law school paper. It is basically "better safe than sorry." The formal name for this philosophy is the Precautionary Principle. It's widely used in environmental circles as a justification to prohibit, regulate or tax any activity that could conceivably impact the environment.
the Precautionary Principle is insidious for at least two reasons.
  • First, it reverses the burden of proof - forcing one side to prove a negative. Instead of the environmental advocate gathering evidence of actual harm and using that evidence to advocate halting the damaging activity, all the activist has to do is come up with a scenario that will potentially harm the environment, and invoke the Precautionary Principle. The activist doesn't have to prove anything, the other side has to prove that their activities will be harmless. This is nearly impossible. I can't prove that driving to taco bell to get lunch will be harmless. This being the case, the precautionary principle says I should not do it.
  • Second, it is used selectively. Environmentalists use it to force industry to prove they will cause no harm, but activists don't take into account the harm caused by their own actions. DDT was banned because it may have harmed some birds, but this ban has allowed millions of people to die from mosquito-bourne malaria over the last 3 decades. One would think that if an action had the potential of killing millions, the precautionary principle would dictate that it not be taken. not so. Only environmental harm is fair game. (and humans are not part of the environment).
Just something to keep in mind next time you hear predictions of possible environmental catastrophe.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

European 'Human' Rights

A British woman is trying to convince an Austrian court to declare a chimpanzee a 'person' so that she can adopt him and be appointed his guardian. Read the whole story here.
36-year-old Miss [Paula] Stibbe and the Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories have filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
She insists that the chimp [Matthew] needs legal standing so a guardian can be appointed to look out for his interests  -  especially if the sanctuary shuts down.
Miss Stibbe, who is from Brighton but has lived in Vienna for several years, says she is not trying to get the chimp declared a human, just a person.
A person, not a human? I, being a lawyer, know there is a difference, but legal persons who are not human are usually organizations or companies. Maybe the chimp should just incorporate in Nevada. I know a guy on the radio who will do it for just $499.
But later she seems a bit fuzzy on the difference.
'Everybody who knows him personally will see him as a person,' she said.
'In his home in the African jungle, he would have been well able to look after himself without a guardian.
But since he was abducted into an alien environment, traumatised and locked up in an enclosure, it did become necessary for me to act on his behalf to secure the donation money for him and to avoid his deportation.
'Since he has no close relatives, I am doing this as the person closest to him.'
He was 'abducted?' She's trying to 'avoid his deportation?' As to his close relatives, isn't science always harping on how close we are to chimpanzees, genetically?
The sad thing is that the court will probably take the case, and probably rule for the chimp. After all, this is the same court that doesn't recognize that an unborn child is a person. In fact this very court awarded damages to a Polish woman who's "human rights" were violated when she was denied a 'therapeutic' abortion.
Europe's idea of 'human rights' is, I fear, irretrievably lost.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Discriminatory Dollars

A federal court ruled today that the treasury department discriminates against the blind by . . . get this . . . printing money!
Well, not exactly. But, the court did rule that the fact that different denominations aren't distinguishable by touch violates the Rehabilitation Act. In essence, the government needs to make sure that blind people can tell a $5 from a $10 from a $20 by touch.
I'm not saying this isn't a problem, but where does it end? Aren't the Homeland Security color alerts discriminatory? How does someone know what an "orange" threat level is if they've never seen color?
There's no really effective way to comply with this decision. Make each denomination a different size? won't they need to carry several reference cards for comparison? (not to mention the forced redesign or replacement of every single vending machine / ATM / counting machine / ticket machine / cash register / wallet in the country). Print raised marks on the bills? That will last until the bill gets wadded up or washed, and what a great way to counterfeit! a few minutes with a needle, and viola! all my ones are twenties. Texture? How many different textures are there, and do they survive wadding?
Some difficulty is, I think, an inevitable result of blindness. That's why it is called a handicap. There's nothing wrong with trying to help the blind, but I don't think the court thought this one through.
Incidentally, I'm not simply being "ableist", the American Federation for the Blind opposes changing the money too.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Surprised Economists

I've been struck repeatedly over the last few years by how many stories about the economy contain phrases along the lines of "economists were surprised by..."
It seems like they are surprised by any economic news that comes out. Something is always more or less than predictions, and not by just a little, but by orders of magnitude. For example, economists were surprised again today by job numbers and factory orders. (Incidentally, I wish I'd got to this earlier, the wording earlier today was different, the "news people" softened their description of how surprising the numbers were).
a government report showed the nation’s employers cut far fewer jobs than expected last month, stirring optimism about the buoyancy of the economy. . .
The Labor Department’s report that employers cut 20,000 jobs in April was a relief to Wall Street, which had been expecting payrolls to fall by 75,000 jobs. . .
The Commerce Department said U.S. manufacturers saw orders increase 1.4 percent in March. Economists expected a 0.2 percent increase after declines in January and February.
They were expecting 75000 fewer jobs. They were only off by 275% This one isn't sooooo bad, after all there are a lot of jobs in the nation, and the usual gains are 200-300 thousand. Maybe they had a bad day. But, 0.2 versus 1.4? That's off by 600% and the viable range on those numbers is never more than a few percentage points.
I can only think of 3 explanations for the constant stream of these stories:
  • First, the stupid economists are the only ones giving interviews.
  • Second, these are the smart ones, and even they don't know what they are talking about.
  • Third, and this is my theory: You cannot reduce the countless individual choices of a quarter billion people to a formula with any degree of accuracy.
This may disappoint some of my economist friends, but economics is NOT a hard science, it is a descriptive science. It is valuable when looking retrospectively, but absolutely useless as a tool for precise prediction.
Economics is not the only 'science' with this problem. Political science, sociology, psychology, and even, to some extent biology have the same shortcoming. This is because they are trying to predict the actions of beings with souls and free will. In such cases, the best you can do is averages and general trends.
That doesn't mean they are not worthwhile tools, but their practitioners need to recognize the limits of their science and not advocate more detailed policies than the science can support.