Tag Archives: Economics

Evidenced-based politics – imagine that!

Emotions often (lets say 99% of the time) over-rule rational thought so it is hardly surprising politics is seldom an exercise in reason. However, politicians turn their backs on reason to the detriment of all of us.

Politics is about values right? This is true – people interpret the world in different, incompatible ways and the result is a popularity contest (or a good old fashioned mud wrestle to the death).

If it is true that values tend to trump reason and evidence in political discourse, what role is there for science and reason in politics? What should the role of science and reason be in politics?

Science and reason – informed politics

One the basic tenets of the recent Reason Rally in Washington DC and a sure fire way to keep our politicians honest (which is what we all want right?) is to demand that policy be based on facts and evidence.

There is always a political dimension to science. The determination that one thing is true and something isn’t often conflicts with what group or another deems to be ‘heretical’ in some sense. This, I believe, is one of the prime reasons people tend to deny science and engage in motivated reasoning.

If a scientific finding conflicts with political mental model then which caves? Political thinking seems to emanate from the core of the human personality, probably because such thinking is very good at organising simple/complementary core ideals. It is therefore unlikely a new, conflicting idea will integrate into a person’s belief model simply.

If one doesn’t wish to look stupid then one shouldn’t say stupid things

Ultimately, a politician/party that resorts to overt irrationality in making political decisions will face a number of pressures.

Firstly, a sufficiently strident irrational viewpoint will tend to fall under the weight of evidence over time.

Secondly, in recognition of this failure to catch up with reality, external forces from media, opposition parties and voters will pile on the criticism.

The point that goes missing when debating political issues is the fact that we are not free to make up our own facts. We can have a position relative to the facts but so often political discussions descend into personal attacks, conspiracy theories and denial of sound science.

The honourable position is never to hold steadfastly onto falsehoods and spread misinformation. Instead, the courageous and honourable position is to say you’re wrong when you’re wrong and admit that you at least could be wrong. The reason it is courageous and honourable is because admitting one is wrong juts right up against the human tendency to blame, justify and explain away.

When values collide with reality

The reasonable position – update your beliefs in the face of new information – is seen as a weakness in political discussions and debates.

Intrinsically, the acquisition of beliefs is not worthy of an award. In fact, not developing beliefs is often a more honourable position.

What does it say about a person’s values and beliefs when it becomes a necessity to create alternative history, deny science and declare their own ideas as reality despite objective evidence to the contrary?

What does it say about a policy position that is based on anti-intellectual ideas?

It is unsurprising that the person who takes the reasonable position – that this is what I stand for but if new facts enter the fray I will change my mind – will not get very far in politics. This also explains in part why, at present, Republican candidates have resorted to pandering to the Conservative Christians and Mitt Romney (the least extreme of an extreme bunch of candidates) has been labelled “Moderate Mitt” (not as a term of endearment).

My next post will look at some of the research that has gone into the psychology and cognitive factors that lead people to their political persuasion.

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NZ election fallout – I’m not off to Australia

Social media is a buzz with people whingeing that last night’s election result has screwed the country for another 3 years. That’s fine, this is politics and everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, their reasoning seems rather strange.

Many people, jokingly or not, have said they are off to Aussie. I find this rather amusing. The reason I assume people would contemplate going to live in Australia is because economic conditions over there are much better. But then do they think a Labour-led government would do a better job improving our economy than a National one??

People voted National in droves last night, which seems to be a vote of confidence for a party that can solve economic problems. More significantly, it looks to be a vote of no confidence levelled at Labour in the economic department.

What people fail to realise is that the welfare state in New Zealand is not as “uncaring” as many begrudged Labour voters seem to think. A trip to Australia would confirm that fairly quickly. National will not ignore social problems because it is not the “Boogeyman” from the political right.

The fact is that the Australian economy is stronger than ours in New Zealand. However, a key reason why is that they have a mining industry – the very thing most left leaning supporters have opposed here in New Zealand.

If we are to have thriving social programmes, education and healthcare, more jobs, then we can’t do it without moola. None of things are going to come free.

If we want a pie that is big enough to fund the kind of social programmes that Labour and the left want it is going to require looking after the pie, expanding it and not giving so much of it away in loan and interest repayments.

National are not a party so far to the right that they resemble the US Republican party. If they were like the Republican party then I would agree that National are an uncaring party who disenfranchise the “99%”.

The claim that National will benefit only the “super-rich” is also without merit. The rich in this country, a demographic never really defined by those who demonise them, are not a majority.

Most working New Zealanders and small business owners (read: employers/job creators) realise the economic realities we live in. While we could do much more in the areas of welfare, health and education, we will need a sound economy to do anything worthwhile. This is why Labour governments do good work during our economic “up” years.

On that note, I think the Greens doing so well is a good thing. They will bring some valuable perspectives to the table, particularly around energy and the issues surrounding pollution.

It is true that our primary industries are valuable money spinners for the country but it seems to be unsustainable long-term to allow farmers a free pass in the water pollution area. Greenhouse gas policy will continue to be a hot topic. An alternative to straight market-first answers is needed on such topics.

At the end of the day politics is about values, but as a skeptic, I hope to see policies (an opposition to policies) grounded in the best data and sound logic.

Heading to Australia is great, but I wouldn’t be doing so on the basis that our country is screwed while Australia is some golden land of paradise. If you want a better standard of living here, it seems fixing the economy and balancing the books is a top priority. National is who the people chose to do this and their logic is sound given the opposition.

Flawed pricing – what Adidas and Borders NZ have in common

The hotly anticipated 2011 Adidas All Blacks jersey turned sour for fans when they realised they would have to fork out $220 kiwi dollars for it. This flawed pricing strategy is not unique in New Zealand.

Consumers have no obligations to buy a rugby jersey at double the price they can get it online from UK and US stores. Adidas are dreaming if they think NZ consumers are dumb enough to pay exorbitant prices for a jersey they can buy for a price somewhat less than than their rent for the week.

Just ask the owners who led Whitcoulls and Borders into financial strife. I have only ever bought a book from Borders in New Zealand when it was heavily reduced in price. I refuse to buy an average sized book for more than $30. Many new release books are $40+. I’m quite happy to wait a few more days and get the same book from Amazon for $15-$20. With exchange rates in our favour, why wouldn’t consumers look online first?

Rugbystore.co.uk lists the 2011 All Blacks jersey at £64.99, which works out to be $NZ126 at the time of writing. Worldrugbyshop.com has it at $US89.99 (about $NZ105). Throw in a bit extra for shipping and you have your jersey at around 50% discount to what you can buy it here.

“If we continue to encourage people to purchase products overseas all that’s going to happen is New Zealand retailing will fall apart.” – David Hugget, Adidas NZ (NZ Herald)

The idea that we, the consumers would be somehow responsible for a decline in NZ retailing because we are unwilling to pay ridiculous prices for products, is simply flabergasting. If YOU – Adidas – price a jersey at excessive prices don’t blame us for buying from abroad and “causing NZ retailing to fall apart”.

I’ve never been to a store and paid more for a product out of some gesture of charity to a retailer. And I bet the owners of those retail outlets don’t buy from importers and suppliers that are going to charge them more than the guy 50m down the docks.

I do feel for retailers like Rebel Sport. They are at the end of the supply chain and so have to absorb all the costs along the way. The final price of the jersey, however, makes one wonder whether they’re made from super-strength carbon nano-fibres.

I admit there are a number of factors at play here – 15% GST, exchange rate volatility and higher fuel prices. But this price creep in All Blacks merchandise has been gradually getting worse over the past few years and I doubt that can all be attributed to external factors (some of which are favourable to importers). All Blacks training jersies I took a shine to last year were priced at about $NZ175.

Adidas – in true corporate spirit worsened their greedy image by revealing that the company is seeking to block cheap imports wherever it can. Wait a go guys – don’t cut the price to a more reasonable level for the average consumer – put it further out of reach.

I listened to Rebel Sport managing director Rod Duke on Radio ZB express his dismay at the unenvious position Rebel Sport and other retailers have been forced into by Adidas over the price of the ABs jersey. Duke says he will be holding some tough conversations with Adidas about pricing, where he will ask – “What the F@#k?” or something to that effect.

Whitcoulls, Borders, Adidas (I’m sure there are others) have perplexing pricing strategies. JB Hi-Fi singlehandedly killed DVD and CD sales in Borders on Auckland’s Queen Street and online stores are attracting armies of followers. Such is the evolution arms race in market economics – evolve or die and leave the excessive greed to the Gordon Geckos of the world.

Global Warming/Climate Change deniers are not skeptics

Global warming – and its associated term – climate change – is one of the most important yet divisive issues of our time. And make no mistake, both terms are scientific and a solid scientific consensus has emerged from a convergence of data from many different fields of inquiry.

Yet there are a good many people dedicated, dogmatically so, to denying various aspects of climate change. There are global warming deniers, denialists that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (or at least produces negligent atmospheric effects) and they all, therefore, share the belief that human activity is not to blame for climate change.

It is important to point out that people who deny scientific findings are denialists and not skeptics. A true skeptic adheres to the scientific method and therefore is skeptical of claims that stem from beliefs inconsistent with the science. Skepticism is a positive venture, precisely because it is about the pursuit of truth and knowledge through the scientific method.

Denialists Of All Stripes
Many denialists are in fact conspiracy theorists, and once the conspiracy belief system is swallowed then all that exists is the conspiracy. This is a common trait in all forms of denial, whether they be holocaust, aids denial or global warming. Some think science is just wrong while others take that extra few hundred miles of faith leaping to imply, or flat out claim, a grand conspiracy. And grand the conspiracy would have to be considering the amazing number of individual agents with separate spheres of influence that it would take if true. A scientists analysing ice core samples in Antarctica have very little to do with a climatologist studying rainfall and climate of the Amazon rainforest. Yet, their conclusions might feed into the same hypothesis and in fact, this is what we find when we look at their research. We will look at this in a moment. First, let’s address what global warming deniers are really saying:

  • GW deniers believe their own stories are better informed than the science gathered by numerous climatology organisations, endorsed by peer review and all of the academies of science from the major industrialised nations.
  • Many, not all, GW deniers dismiss the notion that, the increase of the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere as a result of industrialisation has accelerated climate change processes.
  • GW deniers cherry pick short term trends as proof that GW isn’t happening. Meanwhile, glaciers and ice shelves continue to recede at an alarming rate.
  • Some GW deniers go to the extreme end of confirmation bias and distortion of facts by claiming that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas – they claim it has a limited radiation forcing effect. This is apparent justification to just leap in and burn as much coal and fossil fuels as we like. This claim also ignores the fact that, regardless of GW, more methane, CO2, nitrogen and sulphur oxides in the atmosphere is not a healthy thing.
  • Another popular claim among GW deniers is the idea that climate change happens anyway. Yes, this is true, however, implicit in that argument is the supposition that humans have no impact on the climate change process. This is claimed despite the fact that industrialisation has changed the composition of the atmosphere dramatically. Concentrations of CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s.
  • The possibility of one person knowing enough about the research that feeds into climate change theory is very slim. Yet, GW deniers seem to think they do know enough. The endeavour of one particular scientific theory maybe so all encompassing that it is impossible for one person to call themselves an expert in the field. This is a strength of science though, because research from multiple disciplines can feed into a theory – each branch contributing its own findings. It is unscientific to have hubris and think you know it all.

Climate change models are the best extrapolations we have of future climate trends. Climate models are dependent on the best data possible and therefore change as new information arises. This revision of climate models is seen as a weakness by GW deniers, so they engage in combat with nonsense arguments like “we can’t even predict the weather for tomorrow accurately (so how can we trust these climate models that are constantly changing)” . Weather is spontaneous and while predictable to an extent, the variable can change very quickly. Climate trends can be analysed and because they are long term projections, we can make informed assessments of climate data. The trend will have a saw tooth effect, the complexity of climate variables ensures that it won’t be a smooth trend, but the overall pattern, revealed by some models, shows a possible 4% warming by 2050. This would be dire for human populations as it would force mass migrations from uninhabitable zones to cooler, wetter regions.

One final word on climate models. Notice how these models require data and therefore change as better data is discovered. Notice too how the beliefs of GW deniers are not contingent on new information and therefore will seldom change. “But we’ve been in a cooling period since a peak average global temperature in 1998”. So what? This is cherry picking data from a small dataset. How can 10 years of apparent lower average global temperature represent a long term trend of global warming? There will always be fluctuations. Selecting data and saying “ha ha – gotcha” is very unscientific. This is exactly what astrologers do when describing predictions made by the stars, all the while ignoring the misses. Arguing from the fallacy of small numbers is a feature of pseudoscience.

Now is not the time to ignore the climate science. As with any science, there are detractors and the suspicions of the political motivations. It is obvious that some things will have to change and privileges lost. Many are therefore resistant to changing wasteful habits. Those profiting from fossil fuels will lose out. Humans aren’t really good at change. We get comfortable and that security blanket is hard to leave. Changing isn’t an option any longer. The best methods of knowledge gathering and testing have been applied to real world trends and have revealed a startling trend towards a dramatically different world. We turn against such knowledge at our own peril.

As I conclude this story a New Scientist article has outlined the changes Earth will undergo by 2099. The conclusions aren’t encouraging. I also found an article that also expands on this story.