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Dave Cohen
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Denial is not just a river in Egypt.
Interests: evolution, energy, the economy, climate, astrobiology, music, paleontology, culture
Recent Activity
I've been writing about human-caused destruction of the biosphere for quite some time now. As new scientific studies come to light, the press coverage follows a depressing pattern. These stories are usually climate-related. Here's the standard Washington Post version along with some other details. The research institution in question issues a press release. The climate beat writer (i.e., Chris Mooney) explains the meaning and consequences of the new study. He quotes the lead researcher. Other mainstream stories follow his lead. If there's a good graphic from the study, Chris includes that. Chris calls upon Penn State climate researcher Michael Mann... Continue reading
Posted 2 days ago at Decline of the Empire
Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. — Carl Sagan Elizabeth Kolbert's latest is called Unnatural Selection. It's about using genetic engineering to save various species, including dying corals and trees. I'll quote the ending. Advocates for techniques like assisted evolution and genetic engineering argue that the moment for being hands off has passed. Humans have already so violently altered the world that without “deliberate intervention” the future holds only loss and more... Continue reading
Posted 3 days ago at Decline of the Empire
Video by Patrick Mylund Nielson. Text by Carl Sagan. Music by Ludovico Einaudi. Continue reading
Posted 5 days ago at Decline of the Empire
Let's start with a wise and telling quote from an anonymous source. Who wrote this? [When running for office a second time,] the path of least resistance — of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs and the top lobbying shops — starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don’t quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes. The problems of ordinary people, the voices of the Rust Belt town or the dwindling heartland, become a distant... Continue reading
Posted 6 days ago at Decline of the Empire
The Paris climate agreement will be signed today in New York. Today is Earth Day. Sarcasm about the human prospect seems redundant given the fact that we reached 1.5°C during the first 3 months of 2016 (rounding up). Global leaders are meeting in New York this week to sign the Paris climate agreement. One of the expressed purposes of the document is to limit warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” A Climate Central analysis shows that the world will have to dramatically accelerate emissions reductions if it wants... Continue reading
Posted Apr 22, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
A remarkably frank story appears in the May issue of The Atlantic. Writer and film critic Neal Gabler introduces his subject in the opening text. Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
I wrote the third Flatland essay in late 2014. Most of that essay tried to explain the prevalence of bullshit in human affairs. It is now 2016, an election year, and it is obvious to the cognoscenti—those with functioning Flatland bullshit detectors—that self-serving nonsense crops up everywhere all of the time. It might be useful to repeat the definition of bullshit used in that essay. In individuals or social groups, bullshit, or spin, is a self-serving post-hoc rationalization of some unconscious motivation. Bullshit arises when there is an unconscious need to— (1) maintain a positive self-image or manage positive impressions... Continue reading
Posted Apr 19, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Today I ran across yet another article telling us that wages for American workers are going nowhere (Quartz, hat tip Tim Iacono). As you age and progress in your career, your earnings normally increase. And for many Americans that’s still the case. Using the US Census Bureau’s March Current Population Survey, I estimated median earnings of 31 to 36 year olds in 2000, a group made up entirely of those considered Generation X. I aged them one year, each year, until 2015 (ending with them between 46 and 51). And, like generations before them, the typical Gen Xer’s earnings increased... Continue reading
Posted Apr 18, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
I have from time to time quoted William Shakespeare on DOTE. And as regular readers know, I am not in the least prone to conspiracy theories. April 23, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, but I have doubts about Will. I do not believe the man called "Shakespeare" (or "Shakspere", etc.) wrote the plays his name is forever linked with. That man existed, certainly, but was he the author of the plays? I don't believe it, and haven't for many years now. Read the declaration of reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare if you are unfamiliar... Continue reading
Posted Apr 17, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
And then there is this— Based on observation-initialized weather model runs by DMI, almost 12% of the Greenland ice sheet had more than 1mm of melt on Monday 11 April, following an early start to melting the previous day. Scientists at DMI were at first incredulous due to the early date. "We had to check that our models were still working properly" said Peter Langen, a climate scientist at DMI. “Fortunately we could see from the stations on the ice sheet that it had been well above melting, even above 10 °C. This helped to explain the results”. The... Continue reading
Posted Apr 15, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Yesterday I visited a doctor and got some prescriptions. One of those (at my request) was a simple tetracycline anti-biotic. These kinds of drugs have been around in generic versions for decades. I figured I'd pay about 10 bucks for a standard two-week course. The drugstore I use didn't even have it in stock and quoted me a price — $400. An alternative doxycycline would cost me $175. I went to another pharmacy and asked them did they have tetracycline in stock? What would it cost me? The guy quoted me a price — $11.79. He told me to come... Continue reading
Posted Apr 14, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Politics is little more than group conflict fueled by motivated reasoning (i.e., self-serving bullshit). However, it is possible to know some things. For example, financial institutions which are too big to fail are too big to exist. Corruption exists. Powerful special interests, including financial interests, really are powerful. Existing institutions like the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Treasury consistently represent and defend those interests. On these issues, Bernie Sanders among the candidates comes closest to engaging with reality, though he is also a starry-eyed idealist. And because Bernie understands that financial interests are powerful, and corruption exists, he must be... Continue reading
Posted Apr 11, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
This is getting ridiculous. Hardly a week goes by where we don't get more bad news about global warming. Even worse, it's getting harder and harder to deny that climate models contain significant amounts of optimism bias. More precisely, that bias resides in the minds of those who build the models. Science is supposed to be self-correcting, and we can observe that process as the years go by, BUT the revisions seem to go in only one direction—things are worse than we thought. The latest blow concerns the role of cloud feedbacks in estimating climate sensitivity. There's always been lots... Continue reading
Posted Apr 8, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Ah, population biologists. These are the folks who sometimes view Homo sapiens as being just like any other animal species. That's a refreshing take on things. The Stanford press release on a new Nature study of the human invasion of South America is called Populations of early human settlers grew like an 'invasive species'. ... the study ... finds that for much of human history on the continent, human populations grew like an invasive species, which are regulated by their environment as they spread into new places. Populations grew exponentially when people first colonized South America. But then they crashed,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 7, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
The news is really bad on the climate change front lately. I don't usually report on that stuff, but occasionally a new result comes along which is too impressively bad to pass on. A recent Nature Letter met that criteria. It's called The terrestrial biosphere as a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Here's the abstract. The terrestrial biosphere can release or absorb the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), and therefore has an important role in regulating atmospheric composition and climate. Anthropogenic activities such as land-use change, agriculture and waste management have... Continue reading
Posted Apr 3, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Some sort of rant is in order here, but I'm not sure I'm up to it... Here we go. The title came to mind as I reacted to recent CEPR post by Dean Baker called If the Economy Fell Into Recession, Would Anyone Notice? The quick and dirty answer is that most of those voting this year would ask Are you telling me we're not in recession? Are you fucking kidding me? And they would be right to ask those questions. There are lots of signs of an economic slowdown, and you can read the CEPR post for those. Here... Continue reading
Posted Mar 31, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Despite Bernie winning primary after primary in western states, the mainstream media long ago declared Hillary the winner. She has their full support. Successful shills love the status quo. Now, our beloved corporate-owned MSM has naturally turned their full attention to the all-important (to them) question of whether Bernie's supporters will vote for Hillary if she runs against Trump. The MSM thinks they will! (That's what I call a congruent output.) Personally, I think many (if not most) of those young people supporting Bernie will not turn out in November to vote for Hillary. In fact, celebrity Bernie campaigner Susan... Continue reading
Posted Mar 30, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Having explored the neolithic roots of kleptocracy yesterday, I will descend into the gutter today to look at some of the consequences. We're talking about elites here. What kinds of things do these people do? It will cost more than four times the average income in San Francisco to have dinner next to Hillary Clinton and the Clooneys there next month. For two seats at the head table with Clinton, George Clooney and his wife, attorney Amal Clooney, at an April 15 fundraiser, a couple must contribute or raise a whopping $353,400 — a huge ticket price for a hard-dollar... Continue reading
Posted Mar 29, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
Some time back I ran across a short paper called Cereals, appropriability, and hierarchy, which is an academic study of the origins of social stratification (elites, hierarchies) in complex human societies. That Voxeu summary is itself based on a more comprehensive study of the same name (pdf). Back in the 1990's, I had looked into this subject through the lens of the great social scientist Gerhard Lenski. I also read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). Quoting from the longer study (p. 10)— Lenski (1966) sought to integrate functionalist theories ... with contact theories for explaining social stratification. He... Continue reading
Posted Mar 28, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
I took an interest in anthropogenic climate change in the late 1990's, about a decade after James Hansen first testified before the U.S. senate about the dangers of global warming. It is now 20 years later, and Hansen's role in publicizing the issue has been much reduced. In 2016, Hansen can only make a video on youtube about the dangers of 2°C of warming and hope people will watch it. To date, about 30,500 people have watched it, including me. I've embedded the video below. You can find a transcript here. The video explains the implications of a recent paper... Continue reading
Posted Mar 24, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
I thought you might find this amusing. This is the Economist Intelligence List of threats to the global economy for April, 2016. The colored circle (w/score) denotes the "intensity" of the threat. As we would expect, the ongoing and dramatic global temperature spike in 2016 did not make the list, but Donald Trump did It was so hot last month that large parts of the Arctic averaged more than 18°F (10°C) above normal. Not only did last month easily set the record for lowest February Arctic sea ice extent, as the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported, but... Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
I'm thinking I made a mistake publishing that updated Flatland model without any context. I read that silly New Yorker article and thought "this is ridiculous! Surely we can do better than that nonsense." I assumed that if folks had actually read and (to some large extent) understood the first three Flatland essays, that model I put up and briefly explained would make sense, at least upon some reflection. I mean, we already know what confirmation bias is, right? We know about filtering of threatening information, right? And so on. Now I'm not so sure that was a good assumption... Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
I will quote from Jill LePore's After The Fact (The New Yorker, March 21, 2016 issue). She's talking about the views of Michael Lynch, who is introduced in this quote. Most of what is written about truth is the work of philosophers, who explain their ideas by telling little stories about experiments they conduct in their heads, like the time Descartes tried to convince himself that he didn’t exist, and found that he couldn’t, thereby proving that he did. Michael P. Lynch is a philosopher of truth. His fascinating new book, “The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
George Carlin thought religion was the greatest bullshit story of all time, and that's probably true. But in contemporary times, I think National "Public" Radio is the greatest bullshit story. Get this — Not only does NPR consistently represent "establishment" interests while pretending to serve public interests, but it also gets the public (through its local affiliates) to pay for it! My local affiliate tells me every single day just how great "public" radio is. How could I possibly live without it? These earnest local boosters know of course that some time soon now they will be begging for their... Continue reading
Posted Mar 15, 2016 at Decline of the Empire
New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait is really, really put out about Donald Trump. He doesn't seem upset by the decades-long screwing of the American people which gave rise to Donald Trump. At least, he neglected to mention it. Didn't I say something before about sowing and reaping? Anyway, here's the last paragraph of Chait's story with an amusing psychological grammar lesson for you. Note the colored highlighting in the text. A huge majority of the public finds Trump repellent. Some of his current unpopularity is the soft opposition of Republican voters who are currently listening to anti-Trump messaging from party... Continue reading
Posted Mar 14, 2016 at Decline of the Empire