October 14th, 2008


Truth-Driven Thinking

I'm listening to the audiobook of Stephen L. Gibson's Truth-Driven Thinking. While the author has a fine premise, and he interviews James Randi and Dr. Barry Glassner in the book and these conversations are interesting. But, apparently in an effort to "present the other side", he also interviews Stephen Moore. The author listed his credits as appearing a lot on Faux Noise, and I knew he was an idiot... okay, to be nice, I was highly skeptical of his line of reasoning. (One might call this emotional, and I recognize this, and tried to listen to the facts of what he said.) And frankly, since among his credits is the book Bullish On Bush: How George Bush's Ownership Society Will Make America Stronger, and Paul Krugman, a Bush critic, just won the Nobel Prize in Economics... I have to think he's not a very good economist either. And he totally disses climate change, and reveals very clearly that he has zero knowledge of the subject. He makes several specious (and even religious) arguments about several of the topics they discuss. For instance, he reasons for not fighting climate change has to do with our ability to "change the weather" which is not what battling climate change is about. And the numbers both the author and Moore toss around are clearly designed to say what they want them to say. For instance, the discussion of how much the rich pay in taxes and whether they pay their "fair share was clearly designed to make it appear as though the rich were being hosed. He didn't even provide an alternate form of comparison. And Moore made a similar faulty comparison about the cost of commodities relative to personal income.

So, while the guy has the right idea, he still has a long way to go. I would sound terrible if I blamed it on a lack of intelligence, so instead, I will be kind, and blame it on a lack of information. I will be generous, and assume that if Moore (or Gibson) were sat down in a room with a real climatologist and given the chance to spout off some of the ridiculous claims I heard in this book, then maybe one of them would learn something. (I will be reading another book influenced by the same person that influence Moore; I bought it last week for "the other side" to talk about a climate change colloquium I'll be going to in February and a meeting I'll be hosting here in March.)

Oh, geez, and now he's going off on some weird religion-related complexity argument about nature... not to mention a dig at evolution.

"Animal souls are as cosmically as valuable as ours in many ways..." I can't believe he just said that! :(

There is a problem with constantly "taking the other side" of everything. The closer we get to "Truth", the more often you will be wrong.

And now, DDT isn't dangerous. Damn, this guy is so susceptible to junk science! He really needs to work harder on his "truth-driven thinking".

The problem here is that while he makes good points on avoiding confirmation bias, and statistical errors, etc., but then he goes on to make exactly those same errors in many of his examples. And it gets worse as it goes on.

Okay, so now he talks sense about vaccines,... but he does so with an apology to anyone who might be offended, but offered no such apology before talking about climate change.

So, the book is a bit hit and miss, but the author's heart is in the right place. But if you are really looking for good examples of "truth-driven thinking", pick another book.

Letter on Truth-Driven Thinking

After thinking about this some more, I am thinking about writing a letter to the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, that I commented on in my last post. It would go something like this:

Dear Mr. Gibson:

I recently listened to the audiobook of your book "Truth-Driven Thinking". I have some comments to make on the book, which, in the end, I found incredibly frustrating.

I don't think Carl Sagan's quote "there are no experts" means quite what you think it means. Sagan meant that we shouldn't take any "expert" as an authority, but should question and ask for evidence to judge for ourselves. However, barring our ability to check every fact in every arcane field, experts are important because they spend the time studying and questioning a topic in detail that we can't do. "Expertise" is earned, not bestowed. This goes directly to your assault on the science of climate change.

You did a disservice to your readers by using an economist to rebutt claims of climate change rather than a climatologist. That's a little like using an English professor to rebutt claims of evolution. Climate change is informed by a variety of lines of evidence, not only modern temperature spikes, but hundreds of years of testing atmospheric CO2 levels, the physics and chemistry of CO2, astronomy and 400 years of solar observations together with the physics of solar activity, orbital mechanics, ice core data going back 600,000 years and more, dendrochronology, amber gas bubbles, volcanic strata in rock layers, fossilized pollen and other plant and animal data, and on and on. What does an economist know of dendrochronology? Economists are fine people to ask for economically viable ways to approach a solution, but they cannot be relied upon as a serious critic of climate change.

Don't you think, that as science searches for the truth and we get closer to it, that challenging "conventional wisdom" that is based on science would more often lead you to mistakes than new insights? And the irony is, you are rejecting the scientific consensus of climatologists around the world, and then you turn around and tell us we should rely on science and the scientific method. This isn't nutrition, where we are getting conflicting studies on a regular basis. The only question with climate change is how much, how fast. And Peter Moore's claim that to affect climate change we need to "control the weather" is totally specious.

DDT is a poison. Why should we be shocked that it's poisonous to more species than just mosquitos? Furthermore, DDT probably wouldn't have been nearly so controversial if it hadn't been used with wild abandon, not just to control typhoid and malaria, but also in agriculture. The thing about poisons is that there is a dosage level. Small amounts might not be terribly harmful, but larger amounts will kill. The idea that this was not considered beforehand is insane and short-sighted. While certainly there is a fear factor involved in not allowing wider usage to kill disease-bearing insects, it is also quite rational knowing that it has been abused in our lifetimes, and could be so again without carefully crafted regulations. But you did not make the claim, as some do about marijuana, that just because some will abuse it, does not mean it can't be used appropriately quite safely the vast majority of the time. I don't know the answer to this question about either marijuana or DDT (what level of use is "safe"), but not to comment on the irrationality of using it without considering the consequences in the first place makes you sound like an anti-environmentalist shill, and not a rational moderate searching for the truth.

And your discussion of taxes and whether the rich are paying their "fair share". The data you gave was deeply flawed. While the numbers may very well be true, the data you used was straight forwardly biased. You didn't even provide an alternative method of looking at the numbers which would have served to make one of your points far better... that numbers can be manipulated to say what we want them to say, when we don't understand the details very well.

Your heart is in the right place. But I found it particularly ironic that for all of the suggestions you made, your book committed several of the errors you warn readers against, particularly the ones mentioned above.

With regards,...