Category Archives: Policy

The Wizard and the Prophet: ¿Por Qué No Los Dos?

Charles Mann’s book, The Wizard and the Prophet, is a remarkable biography of two men who each believed he had the best way for the world to avoid a “wrenching global catastrophe” in the next century:

  • Agronomist Norman Borlaug, The Wizard, believed that science and technology, properly applied, can help humankind produce enough of what the world’s population needs to survive.
  • Ornithologist William Vogt, The Prophet, believed that humankind must drastically reduce consumption to avoid overwhelming the planet’s ecosystems and becoming extinct.

Cataloguing in excruciating detail the pioneering work and influential writing of Borlaug and Vogt, Mann mostly paints their efforts with great contrast, pitting the scientists and their followers against one another: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment,” Mann says. “Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet.”

But he also admits, “Wizards and Prophets are less two ideal categories than two ends of a continuum. In theory, they could meet in the middle. One could cut back here à la Vogt and expand over there, Borlaug-style.” When Mann offhandedly allowed, “Some people believe in doing just that,” I thought, Wait, what? Umm…yeah! ¿Por qué no los dos? Why not both? How does maximizing access to food, water, energy and air conflict with being responsible about using them?

In his quest, perhaps, to sharpen the debate by focusing on the priorities of each man’s efforts and the needlessly partisan passion of their followers, Mann colors their work as mutually exclusive and impulsively casts aside the suggestion that they could complement and enhance one another. He says, “People who back Borlaug and embrace genetically modified, hyper-productive wheat and rice won’t follow Vogt and dump their steaks and chops for low-impact veggie burgers.” Huh?

Biologist Lynn Margulis, to whom Mann refers at numerous points in the book, insisted that it is the fate of every successful species—including humans—to wipe itself out. And so she believed, according to Mann, that both Borlaug and Vogt were wrong to think they could stop us from destroying ourselves.

But Mann ultimately clings to the hope that, whatever approach or combination of approaches wins out, the human species will be able to maintain its success indefinitely. He insists that “Wizards and Prophets…both assume…that human beings are special creatures who can escape the fate of other successful species.”

Mann hopefully cites recent progress in freeing slaves, empowering women and reducing violence and asks, “Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use [our] talents and…resources to draw back before the abyss?”

Having insisted that The Wizard and the Prophet is “a book about the future that makes no predictions,” he ends with a vague fear. “It is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right,” he says, “and get this one wrong.”

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Getting Better, IX: A Very Serious Possibilist

Hans Rosling helped us see the world's possibilities

The title of this post is from Hans Rosling, but it was like-minded Ben Carlson who listed 50 Ways The World is Getting Better on his blog, A Wealth of Common Sense. These are the most significant:

  1. Flying has gotten 2,100 times safer over the past 70 years. 2016 was the second safest year in aviation history. The odds of being fatally injured in a plane crash are just 0.000025%.
  2. Over the course of the 20th century, Americans became 96% less likely to be killed in a car accident and 95% less likely to be killed on the job.
  3. Since 1960, the fraction of a person’s life taken up by work has fallen by 25% through a combination of shorter workweeks, more paid time off, and longer retirements.
  4. Deaths caused by infectious diseases dropped from more than 37% in 1900 to less than 5% by 1955 and just 2% by 2009 saving the lives of more than a 100 million children.
  5. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of deaths from malaria (which in the past killed half the people who had ever lived) fell by 60%.
  6. The world’s nuclear stockpiles have been reduced by 85% since the Cold War.
  7. The literacy rate from the 17th to 19th century was just one-eighth of the global population. From that point on the world’s literacy rate doubled in the next century and quadrupled in the century after that, so now 83% of the world is literate.
  8. In 1820, more than 80% of the world was unschooled. It’s estimated that by the end of the century this number will be close to zero.
  9. In 1920, just 28% of American teenagers ages 14-17 were in high school. The high school graduation rate was just 9% in 1910. It jumped to 52% by 1940 and is 83% today.

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At Least We Don’t Call Them Panics Any More

The U.S. economy is much less volatile now than it once was

Portfolio manager Ben Carlson had some common sense comments about investing in general, fear of an impending recession in particular, and maybe a reason recessions aren’t called “panics” any more.

The historical record shows that the U.S. has had at least one recession every single decade since the 1850s but not one yet in this decade. What stands out, however, is how much less volatile the U.S. economy is now than it once was. From the 1850s through the end of World War II, the average contraction in economic activity was more than 22%; since then, the average contraction has been just 2.3%. “It’s hard to argue,” Carson said, “that the Fed hasn’t helped the U.S. economy become less volatile over time.”

Despite past experience, timing does not demand that there be a recession at regular intervals. “Expansions don’t die of old age. Economic cycles don’t care who the president is and they certainly don’t care what the calendar says,” he insisted. “Something as complex as economic activity is mainly controlled by human behavior, not rational economic textbook theory,” said Carlson.

Kai Ryssdal, host and senior editor of Marketplace, also pointed out that many macroeconomic statistical models have problems because their predictions don’t account for human behavior and “human beings are not always logical.”

According to University of Chicago professor Richard H. Thaler, said Ryssdal, economists in the 1940s started creating models of highly rational behavior because they weren’t smart enough to develop models of real behavior. As a result, their equations didn’t act like humans do.

As an example, in his graduate thesis, Thaler pondered the answers people give to these two questions:

  1. How much would you pay to eliminate a one in a thousand risk of death?
  2. How much would you have to be paid to take on an extra one in a thousand risk of death?

He contended that economic theory says the questions should have basically the same answer but, in fact, they elicit very different answers from most people.

An increasing number of behavioral economic theories attempts to include these inconsistencies, but forecasting the next recession will remain a problem for the foreseeable future because, as Carlson said, “human behavior isn’t predictable enough.”

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Thinking Like a Scientist?

True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing

The hype surrounding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education—which claims to develop the skills “to solve tough problems, gather and evaluate evidence, and make sense of information”—has created a false dichotomy between these and other fields, and led to the contention that “the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford.”

English professor Aaron Hanlon contended that, “Core analytical methods useful to all knowledge workers” are appropriate for everyone, not just scientists. He insists, “Being inquisitive, weighing the quality and ideological bent of evidence, and changing our minds according to the evidence is not ‘thinking like a scientist.’ It’s the ‘core’ method of humanistic study.”

And according to Elizabeth Minkel, of How We Get to Next, the idea that science is superior because it “comes from a place of pure objectivity is a commonly held assumption—and dangerous one.”

Indeed, warned science writer John Horgan, science’s desire for certainty can become a trap. Socrates said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing,” and the humanities:

  • give you uncertainty, doubt and skepticism
  • are subversive
  • undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific
  • remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves
  • tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways.

“This skepticism,” Horgan said, “is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be.”

“Science is becoming increasingly dogmatic and arrogant in our era,” according to Horgan, “which is why we need the humanities to foster a healthy anti-dogmatism.”

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Warrior or Guardian?

I've always thought this meant the police were my guardians

There are features of modern life that make our lives safer, more enjoyable and more productive that it’s easy to assume have always existed but in fact have only been around for a relatively short time. The ability to “call the police” when the need arises is one example. The first full-time, professional police force was not established until the nineteenth century, and scholars and law enforcement officials continue to differ about the proper role of police.

Perhaps the most common civilian view is that the police have always been expected to function as a guardian, called on “to protect and to serve.” The original ideal of Robert Peel—British Prime Minister in the 1840s and the father of British policing—acknowledged that, “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behavior and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.”

But rising urban crime rates in the United States in the 1980s, the crack epidemic and the federal government’s war on drugs caused that philosophy to morph, according to Criminal Justice professors Sue Rahr and Stephen K. Rice, “toward a culture and mindset more like warriors at war with the people we are sworn to protect and serve.”

This change is reflected in the emphases in the training of recruits. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, training at the nation’s police academies typically spends the most time on use-of-force training—roughly 168 hours—and the least on de-­escalation and conflict mediation—about nine hours.

Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer and expert in police training at the University of South Carolina School of Law, says that by internally cultivating and promoting the mindset of a warrior whose primary goal is self-protection, modern police often undermine their own efforts. “Though adopted with the best of intentions,” Stoughton said, “the warrior concept has created substantial obstacles to improving police/community relations.”

Rahr, a former sheriff, believes that training officers to communicate properly and stay calm can defuse most situations. She implemented training at the Washington state police academy designed to create guardians of the community, not warriors on a battlefield. “The changes I’ve made,” Rahr said, “really get us back to what policing was originally intended to be.”

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Work for Truth

Galileo's 'somewhat shriveled, spindly finger' preserved in the Galileo Museum in Florence

Alice Dreger, a medical social advocate and bioethicist, titled her book Galileo’s Middle Finger for the actual digit preserved in the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. She considers it a symbol of “Galileo’s contentious nature, his belief in the righteousness of science, his ego, his burning knowledge that he and Copernicus were right.”

In GMF, Dreger describes the necessity of insisting on empirical truth for the establishment of justice:

The activists who founded the United States—the Founding Fathers—understood the critical connection between freedom of thought and freedom of person. They understood that justice (freedom of person) depends upon truth (freedom of thought), and that the quest for truth cannot occur in an unjust system. It’s no coincidence that so many of the Founding Fathers were science geeks. These guys were rightly stoked about the idea that humans working together had it in their power to know and to improve the world—scientifically, technologically, economically, politically. These were men of the Enlightenment who had broken through dogma into a fantastic new vision for humankind: crowdsourcing. No longer would knowledge and power flow from top down, following archaic rules of authority and blood inheritance. In science as in political life, the light of many minds would be brought to bear to decide together what is right and is just. In such a system, a man arguing for a new vision of the universe could never be arrested merely for the argument, no matter how much it threatened those in power….

If we have any hope of maintaining freedom of thought and freedom of person in the near and distant future, we have to remember what the Founding Fathers knew: That freedom of thought and freedom of person must be erected together. That truth and justice cannot exist one without the other. That when one is threatened, the other is harmed. That justice and thus morality require the empirical pursuit….

As Dreger insists, “If you want justice, you must work for truth.”

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The Hunting of a Man

In Emile Gaboriau’s The Widow Lerouge, considered by some to be “the first detective novel,” amateur detective Père Tabaret gushed about the thrill of solving a crime:

“I shrug the shoulder when I see a foolish fellow pay twenty-five francs for the right of hunting a hare. What a prize! Give me the hunting of a man! That calls the faculties into play, and the victory is not inglorious! The game in my sport is worth the hunter. He has against him intelligence, force and cunning. The arms are nearly equal. Ah! if people knew the excitement of these parties of hide and seek which are played between the criminal and the detective, everybody would be wanting employment at the bureau of secret police.”

But for the last 50 years, despite steady advances in forensic technology like DNA profiling, digital fingerprint matching and bullet fragment analysis, the percentage of US homicide cases that are solved has been decreasing, from 90 percent in 1965 to 64 percent in 2012.

Three reasons are typically given for this change:

  1. A shift in the profile of the typical murder
  2. A decline in the resources devoted to crime solving
  3. Worsening relationships between the police and the public

During the 1960s and ’70s, “crimes of passion,” where the victim knows the killer, accounted for about 70 percent of US homicides. Some criminal investigators claim, however, that an increase in drugs and gangs means the crimes now more often involve strangers and are thus harder to solve than those between family members or friends. A fear of retaliation can also make witnesses to these crimes reluctant to cooperate, according to a study by three FBI researchers.

Others point to decreased emphasis on the police work needed to solve cases. “The crime waves of the 1970s and ’80s pushed police departments toward prevention strategiesbroken-window patrols, more officer visibility in high-crime areas, stop-and-frisk—and solving crimes became secondary,” according to Michigan State University criminologist David L. Carter.

Decreasing the initial response time and raising the number of detectives assigned to solving a case can lead to more homicide arrests, according to a 1999 Maryland study. But cuts in municipal budgets have made many cities unable to reduce investigators’ homicide investigation caseloads to manageable levels.

Additionally, mistrust of the police and a corresponding unwillingness to cooperate with investigators can make the new forensic techniques less effective. Houston police Sergeant Mike Peters insisted, “Technology is great, but it’s the ability to get people to talk that’s important. That solves cases.” As the author of the definitive manual on homicide investigation said, “If there is a distrust of the police themselves and the system, all of these scientific advances are not going to help us.”

Data compiled by the Murder Accountability Project points to a clear correlation between the number of crimes that are solved and the number that are committed. It shows that in cities where the percentage of crimes solved is above average, the murder rate is just over half that of cities where the percentage solved is below average.

What would it take to imbue more police departments with Monsieur Tabaret’s excitement for the pursuit of criminals and to convince their communities that, indeed, they are pursuing justice?

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