Trump’s relentless war against science

The Hill reports:

President Trump is directing all agencies to cut their advisory boards by “at least” one third.

The executive order issued Friday evening directs all federal agencies to “evaluate the need” for each of their current advisory committees.

The order gives agencies until Sept. 30 to terminate, at a minimum, one-third of their committees.

Committees that qualify for the chopping block include those that have completed their objective, had their work taken up by other panels or where the subject matter has “become obsolete.”

Another defining factor listed includes whether the agency itself has determined that the cost of operating the agency is “excessive in relation to the benefits to the Federal Government.”

Critics say the order is another administration attack on experts who provide scientific advice.

“For the past two years they have been shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees,” Gretchen Goldman, the research director with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Now they’re removing the possibility of even making decisions based on robust science advice. It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

A member of the Trump administration’s National Security Council has sought help from advisers of a conservative thinktank to challenge the reality of a human-induced climate crisis, a trove of his emails show.

William Happer, a physicist appointed by the White House to counter the federal government’s own climate science, reached out to the Heartland Institute, one of the most prominent groups to dispute that burning fossil fuels is causing dangerous global heating, in March.

In the messages, part of a group of emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Happer and the Heartland adviser Hal Doiron discuss Happer’s scientific arguments in a paper attempting to knock down the concept of climate emergency, as well as ideas to make the work “more useful to a wider readership”. Happer writes he had already discussed the work with another Heartland adviser, Thomas Wysmuller. [Continue reading…]

How Hong Kong’s leader made the biggest political retreat by China under Xi

The New York Times reports:

Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, has a very loyal majority in the territory’s legislature. She has the complete backing of the Chinese government. She has a huge bureaucracy ready to push her agenda.

Yet on Saturday, she was forced to suspend indefinitely her monthslong effort to win passage of a bill that would have allowed her government to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China, Taiwan and elsewhere. Mrs. Lam’s decision represented the biggest single retreat on a political issue by China since Xi Jinping became the country’s top leader in 2012.

Huge crowds of demonstrators had taken to Hong Kong’s streets in increasingly violent protests. Local business leaders had turned against Mrs. Lam. And even Beijing officials were starting to question her judgment in picking a fight on an issue that they regard as a distraction from their real priority: the passage of stringent national security legislation in Hong Kong.

The risk for the Hong Kong government is that the public, particularly the young, may develop the impression that the only way to stop unwanted policy initiatives is through violent protests. With each successive major issue since Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997, the level of violence at protests has risen before the government has relented and changed course. []

Michael H Fuchs writes:

As calls grow for a tougher US policy towards China, we must remember what we are talking about when we discuss China policy. In a public conversation defined by 240-character statements, we (myself included) too often shorthand the discussion by referring to “China” – but that is misleading. The CCP is the regime that rules China, but as a dictatorship it does not necessarily represent the 1.4 billion Chinese people.

The people of Hong Kong still have a certain ability to express their opinions, at least for now. But beyond the baseline repression in a system that does not have simple rights like the freedom of speech and assembly, the CCP in mainland China is becoming even more oppressive: today there are more than a million Uighurs imprisoned in an attempt to extinguish their ethnic identities; the CCP is setting up a surveillance state that pulls a page from George Orwell’s 1984 dystopia; and daily restrictions on civil society and citizens are becoming harsher and more widespread.

We often paint China’s government as a monolith run by the dictator Xi Jinping, but the reality is far more complex. Xi contends with forces inside the government and the sentiments of the people, even if those aren’t expressed through democratic means. The CCP’s top goal is to maintain power, and it lives in a constant state of fear about its legitimacy – and rightly so. [Continue reading…]

The empty promise of Boris Johnson

Sam Knight writes:

In the spring of 1989, the Daily Telegraph sent Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson to Brussels to cover what was then the European Economic Community. Johnson, who was twenty-four, knew the city well. His father, Stanley, had been one of the first British bureaucrats appointed to work at the European Commission after the United Kingdom joined the bloc, in 1973. Johnson, his parents, and his three younger siblings moved to Belgium when he was nine years old, joining a sleepy community of expats. Johnson was a clever boy. He learned to speak French without an accent.

When Johnson returned, his father invited an experienced Brussels correspondent, Geoff Meade, to lunch at the family’s large house near Waterloo. Meade and his wife, Sandra, were having drinks when a taxi pulled up. “We hadn’t been led to expect anyone else so it was a surprise to see this outstandingly blond chap jump out in the loudest pair of Bermuda shorts possible. I’ll never forget it,” Meade recounted in “Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition,” Sonia Purnell’s haunting biography, from 2011, of the man expected to be Britain’s next Prime Minister. “But it became clear over lunch that I had been invited there as the established hand to meet and help Boris.”

Purnell served as Johnson’s deputy in the Telegraph’s Brussels bureau, and her portrait of the politician as a young reporter makes an indelible impression. At first, Johnson was lost. He had been fired from his first job in journalism, at the Times of London, for making up a quote about Edward II’s relations with a boy, which he had attributed to his godfather, an Oxford don. Johnson was disorganized and had few reporting skills. But he had a knack for comedy and a genius for spotting a counter-narrative. In a collection of his journalism, “Lend Me Your Ears” (2003), Johnson describes a free-market approach to trying out opinions: “There will always be someone ready to buck the conventional wisdom, ready to buy when the market is low.” Johnson realized that conventional British reporting on the procedures of the E.E.C. (which was renamed the European Union in 1993) was reverential, accurate, and dull. He went the other way. [Continue reading…]

Greenland just lost 2 billion tons of ice

CNN reports:

Over 40% of Greenland experienced melting yesterday, with total ice loss estimated to be more than 2 gigatons (a gigaton is equal to 1 billion tons).

While Greenland is a big island filled with lots of ice, it is highly unusual for that much ice to be lost in the middle of June. The average “melt season” for Greenland runs from June to August, with the bulk of the melting occurring in July.

To visualize how much ice that is, imagine filling the National Mall in Washington DC with enough ice to reach a point in the sky eight times higher than the Washington Monument (to borrow an analogy Meredith Nettles from Columbia University gave to the Washington Post.)

The sudden spike in melting “is unusual, but not unprecedented,” according to Thomas Mote, a research scientist at the University of Georgia who studies Greenland’s climate.

“It is comparable to some spikes we saw in June of 2012,” Mote told CNN, referring to the record-setting melt year of 2012 that saw almost the entire ice sheet experience melting for the first time in recorded history. [Continue reading…]

We are more rational than we are told

Steven Poole writes:

Humanity’s achievements and its self-perception are today at curious odds. We can put autonomous robots on Mars and genetically engineer malarial mosquitoes to be sterile, yet the news from popular psychology, neuroscience, economics and other fields is that we are not as rational as we like to assume. We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.

The present climate of distrust in our reasoning capacity draws much of its impetus from the field of behavioural economics, and particularly from work by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in the 1980s, summarised in Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011). There, Kahneman divides the mind into two allegorical systems, the intuitive ‘System 1’, which often gives wrong answers, and the reflective reasoning of ‘System 2’. ‘The attentive System 2 is who we think we are,’ he writes; but it is the intuitive, biased, ‘irrational’ System 1 that is in charge most of the time.

Other versions of the message are expressed in more strongly negative terms. You Are Not So Smart (2011) is a bestselling book by David McRaney on cognitive bias. According to the study ‘Why Do Humans Reason?’ (2011) by the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, our supposedly rational faculties evolved not to find ‘truth’ but merely to win arguments. And in The Righteous Mind (2012), the psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the idea that reason is ‘our most noble attribute’ a mere ‘delusion’. The worship of reason, he adds, ‘is an example of faith in something that does not exist’. Your brain, runs the now-prevailing wisdom, is mainly a tangled, damp and contingently cobbled-together knot of cognitive biases and fear.

This is a scientised version of original sin. And its eager adoption by today’s governments threatens social consequences that many might find troubling. A culture that believes its citizens are not reliably competent thinkers will treat those citizens differently to one that respects their reflective autonomy. Which kind of culture do we want to be? And we do have a choice. Because it turns out that the modern vision of compromised rationality is more open to challenge than many of its followers accept. [Continue reading…]

Music: Morten Haxholm Quartet ft. Jonathan Kreisberg — ‘Occam’s Razor’


‘Recycling is like a Band-Aid on gangrene’


Pope Francis declares ‘climate emergency’ and urges action

The Guardian reports:

Pope Francis has declared a global “climate emergency”, warning of the dangers of global heating and that a failure to act urgently to reduce greenhouse gases would be “a brutal act of injustice toward the poor and future generations”.

He also endorsed the 1.5C limit on temperature rises that some countries are now aiming for, referring to warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of “catastrophic” effects if we crossed such a threshold. He said a “radical energy transition” would be needed to stay within that limit, and urged young people and businesses to take a leading role.

“Future generations stand to inherit a greatly spoiled world. Our children and grandchildren should not have to pay the cost of our generation’s irresponsibility,” he said, in his strongest and most direct intervention yet on the climate crisis. “Indeed, as is becoming increasingly clear, young people are calling for a change.” [Continue reading…]

Hundreds of new pesticides approved in Brazil under Bolsonaro

The Guardian reports:

Brazil has approved hundreds of new pesticide products since its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, took power in January, and more than 1,000 since 2016, a study has found. Many of those approved are banned in Europe.

Of 169 new pesticides sanctioned up to 21 May this year, 78 contain active ingredients classified as highly hazardous by the Pesticide Action Network and 24 contain active ingredients banned in the EU, according to the study published on Wednesday by Greenpeace UK’s news agency Unearthed. Another 28 pesticides not included in the report were approved in the last days of 2018.

“It really appears that they have accelerated their approvals process,” said Prof David Eastmond, a toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside. “Some of these are highly hazardous and this raises concern.”

Brazil began accelerating pesticide approvals in September 2016 after Michel Temer, a conservative politician with close agribusiness links, assumed the presidency. Bolsonaro also won the presidency with strong support from the agribusiness sector. [Continue reading…]

Trump’s fanned the flames in Iran, now the fire risks getting out of control

Peter Beaumont writes:

The growing confrontation in the Gulf between the US and its Saudi-led allies on one side and Iran and its proxies on the other is now focused on the spate of recent mine attacks on oil tankers, which have been blamed by the US on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This is a standoff that has been coming. It is incontestable that Iran has been guilty of destabilising overreach in the Middle East in recent years, as it has moved to build a crescent of Shia influence from Damascus to Baghdad and Lebanon to Yemen.

But Iran’s actions can hardly be said to have occurred in a vacuum. As the Iran analyst for Crisis Group Ali Vaez recently argued, it has been the recent policy of “maximum pressure” on Tehran under the incoherent foreign policy of the Trump administration that has exacerbated the current tensions. In short order, the Trump administration has withdrawn unilaterally from the internationally agreed – and successful – Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, whose purpose was to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for verifiable limits on the country’s nuclear programme.

In April, Washington designated one of the country’s most significant (if troubling) security institutions – the politically influential Revolutionary Guards – a terrorist organisation. It also introduced new economic sanctions that have further stressed Iran’s badly frayed economy. [Continue reading…]