Today’s Guardian reports on an exchange of letters between Salman Rushdie and John le Carre, from 1997, in which they disagree vehemently about the limits of free speech. At this point in his career Rushdie was in hiding from Islamic fundamentalists, and le Carre was in trouble for criticizing Israel – which of course put him in line for claims of anti-semitism, about which he was most outraged. Unfortunately, 10 years earlier he had apparently claimed that “Nobody has a god-given right to insult a great religion,” and Rushdie was apparently incensed that le Carre should suddenly be demanding victim status after the religious “thought police” turned on him.

The subsequent exchange – which the Guardian now reports both sides have declared they regret – is a hilarious example of how debates on freedom of expression were conducted before the existence of blogs. Apparently, they are conducted viciously through the medium of newspapers. But the letters themselves read like something straight out of a modern blog flame war – further proof, if any were needed, that the medium has not really changed the message or its tone.

Some of these exchanges are quite pretty, though. le Carre goes in heavy with his concerns about the girl in the mail room getting her hands blown off, and demands a less colonialist approach to the topic of freedom of expression (though thankfully he doesn’t apply this to Rushdie himself, just his admirers). Less colonialist? Since when is it colonialist to criticize the Iranian regime for putting a price on a writer’s head? Rushdie may be a self-canoniser, but a threat to the Iranian regime he is not. Were he some lunatic militarist with actual political power, pushing for the reoccupation or isolation of Iran, le Carre might have a point – but a religious critic?

In reply, Rushdie thanks le Carre for “refreshing our memories as to what a pompous ass he is” and adds that “‘ignorant’ and ‘semi-literate’ are dunces’ caps he has skilfully fitted on his own head.” Isn’t it just like reading an exchange on one of the better major bloggers’ sites, when they have one of their blog wars? Only all of it in the Guardian letter’s page.

I haven’t read Rushdie’s work, but I find it hard not to take his side on the matter. I’ve no doubt that le Carre’s experience of drawing the ire of the Jewish “thought police,” as Rushdie describes them, was much less frightening than Rushdie’s, but one would have hoped it would have given him a hint as to how hard it might be to be in the firing line, whether figuratively or literally. Whether you think his attack on Islam was warranted or not, and whether you think it deserves the ire of Muslims, the fatwa was an outrageous response and even if purely symbolic is still a Very Bad Thing. I would have thought one could have a nuanced debate about colonialism, revolutionary defensiveness, and the responsibilities of western authors, without ignoring the egregious nature of the response, or belittling Rushdie’s genuine difficulties after the fatwa was declared. And if I were Rushdie, I’d certainly be mighty wrathful with writers who failed to defend my rights.

All of which makes for some entertaining reading, 15 years after the fact, and reminds us that modern blogwars do not necessarily have a lower tone than public debate showed before the invention of this anonymous medium. I guess it just significantly increases the amount that gets said (and thus, by application of basic theorems, the number of debates that get Godwinned). In the case of your average blogger, this is probably not a net positive for the world – but had Rushdie and le Carre been blogging between 1985 and 2000, it would have been quite fascinating, I’m sure.

If only the internet had been invented sooner, we could have been given the pleasure of blogposts by such luminaries as Orwell, Rushdie, Abbie Hoffman … imagine the colour and light such blogs would bring to the medium. Imagine if Steinbeck had a blog during the Great Depression, or Dr. Seuss in the lead up to world war 2. I doubt it would have changed anything, but it would certainly have been great reading…


In this post I will examine the data on beliefs about climate change, conspiracy theories and free market ideology collected by Stephan Lewandowsky. Lewandowsky conducted an exploratory factor analysis (EFA) followed by Structural Equation Modeling (SEM) on the assumption that established theories of conspiracy theory ideation obtained from prior research could be applied to research in online communities of skeptics and warmists. Lewandowsky collected data from those who accept the science of anthropogenic global warming (AGW), hereafter referred to as warmists, and those who reject it, hereafter referred to as skeptics. Lewandowsky constructed exploratory factors by applying factor analysis to separate sets of variables; I think exploratory factor analysis should be more data driven and, since a dataset of individuals who are active on online communities cannot be assumed to follow the same cognitive patterns as communities from which prior results on cognitive models and conspiracy theories were derived, the data should be examined without constraints on which groups of variables should be associated with factors.

In this post I will show that this simple assumption leads to significant differences in outcome, to very different results about the cognitive framework of skeptics vs. warmists, and to different conclusions about the type of communication strategies that warmists should use to persuade skeptics to change their minds.

This is a long post, but if you skip to the “conclusion” section you will also be able to read a BMJ-style “what is known already” and “what this study adds” section that may help to digest the essential points of the post (and the conclusion should be meaningful to non-statsy people).


(You can skip this if factor analysis makes your eyes bleed).

The data set was obtained using code available from Steve Mcintyre at Climate Audit. Principal Components Analysis (PCA) was used to extract eigenvectors and eigenvalues from the correlation matrix for all 32 variables, and the values of the first eigenvector (loadings) were examined for information about possible relationships between the variables on this variable. The Kaiser Criterion was applied to eigenvalues extracted from PCA to determine how many factors to retain in factor analysis. Factor analysis was conducted using a varimax rotation (the default in R) with the number of retained factors determined by this Kaiser Criterion. To be clear, this means the core analysis proceeds according to the following stages:

  1. Use PCA to extract eigenvectors and eigenvalues
  2. Examine the loadings of the first eigenvector for descriptive purposes, because they are usually informative
  3. Apply the Kaiser criterion to the eigenvalues obtained from PCA: that is, the number of eigenvalues >1 will determine the number of factors to be extracted from the data
  4. Use factor analysis to extract this number of factors, based on maximum likelihood estimation with a varimax rotation

A variable was considered to load onto a given factor in an explanatory sense if the absolute value of its loading was greater than 0.4. That is, if a variable j loads onto factor r with absolute value <0.4, that variable is not considered to be associated with that factor. The actual values of the factors (the so-called scores) were calculated based on actual loadings, so would include linear combinations of the variables not considered to load onto the factor in an explanatory sense. Some factor analysis techniques reduce the final values of the factors to a straight sum of only those variables that loaded onto the given factor, but for this article I have chosen to use the full linear combination of all variables as identified in the factor analysis. I think this is consistent with Lewandowsky’s approach to calculating factors.

Subjects were defined as warmist or skeptic on the basis of their responses to variables 7 to 10, the global warming questions. Those individuals who scored greater than or equal to 12 on the sum of these questions were considered warmist. That is, skeptics were those who refused to agree with all of questions 7 to 10. Obtained factors were then regressed against this variable to see the relationship between the factors and the AGW allegiance of the respondent.

Factors were interpreted based on their variable loadings, and further exploratory analyses conducted as necessary to explore the difference between factors obtained using this method and those of Lewandowsky.

For sensitivity analysis, factor analysis was repeated based on two possible results of visual inspection of a scree plot of eigenvalues (not shown). Differences between the values of the loadings on factor 1 were checked for all three methods (the Kaiser method and the two possible results of the visual inspection).

All analysis was conducted in R. Code with some descriptive information is linked in the appendix.


(If you don’t understand factor analysis, you can skip reading most of this section. I have tried to include a layperson’s explanation, but it’s very difficult to give a layperson’s explanation of factor analysis so it may not be adequate).

(If you do want to skip the minutiae of the results, there is also a section here comparing Lewandowsky’s factors and mine, which is potentially informative).

There were 32 variables in the dataset and 1145 observations. PCA identified five eigenvalues with values greater than one, and the associated eigenvectors explained 60% of the variance in the data (which is not really very good for physical sciences, but pretty good for a psychological survey). The eigenvector of the first principal component contained large positive values (ranging from about 0.1 to 0.3) for the global warming and science variables, and negative values (ranging from about -0.1 to about -0.3) for the free market variables. That is, the first principal component measures a contrast between endorsement of global warming and other science-related variables, and endorsement of free market variables.

Based on these results, factor analysis was conducted with five factors and a varimax rotation. The values of the loadings for each variable on each factor are shown in table 1. Variables whose loading has an absolute value larger than 0.4 are shown in bold. Variables with negligible loadings after rotation are given a blank value in the table, consistent with output from R.

Table 1: Loadings for a five factor exploratory factor analysis of the Lewandowsky data



Factor 1

Factor 2

Factor 3

Factor 4

Factor 5

































































































































































































The factors can be interpreted approximately as follows, based on those variables that load onto a factor with absolute value greater than 0.4:

  • Factor 1 (Free Market-AGW axis): measures conflict between endorsement of global warming and endorsement of free market ideas. Those who agree with one disagree with the other. Note that this factor has a very strong loading from the climate change conspiracy theory variable CYClimChange – this is a crucial point. Those who endorse the free market questions generally disagree with the climate change questions and see AGW theory as a conspiracy, but they do not endorse any other conspiracy theories.
  • Factor 2 (conspiracy theory): a factor measuring endorsement of conspiracy theories, that loads strongly onto all conspiracy theory variables except the climate change conspiracy.
  • Factor 3 (Cause and consensus): a variable measuring agreement with measures of cause and consensus on smoking and HIV. This measures the strength of subjects’ beliefs about HIV and smoking issues, and could probably be seen as an endorsement of broader scientific ideals. Note it is uncorrelated with both the AGW/free market axis and the conspiracy theory factor, but explains only about 4% of the variance in the data
  • Factor 4 (Space Aliens!): this variable measures an additional dimension of conspiracy theory, and marks out those individuals who have a really strong belief in alien conspiracy theories
  • Factor 5 (meaningless): this factor is a meaningless factor with no interpretation, which does not need to be included in the model but was kept because the Kaiser criterion tends to retain too many factors. We ignore it.

The variance explained by each factor is shown in table 2.

Table 2: Variance Explained by Factors

Factor Variance Explained Cumulative Variance
Free market- AGW axis 0.26 0.26
Conspiracy theory 0.15 0.40
Cause and Consensus 0.05 0.46
Space Aliens! 0.04 0.49
Meaningless 0.02 0.51

Comparison of Factors with Lewandowsky’s Constructs

Note that the free market-AGW axis (factor 1) essentially contrasts Lewandowsky’s free market factor and his (separately generated) climate change factor. However, it also includes the climate change conspiracy theory variable, which tends to be endorsed by those who oppose climate change theory and support free market ideals. This climate change conspiracy theory is approximately the fourth most popular (endorsed by 134 individuals) and its inclusion in the free market-AGW axis factor is important. The combination of Lewandowsky’s free market and AGW factors into one factor is important too – in Lewandowsky’s model they were correlated with each other, whereas in this model they form a single factor.

The conspiracy theory factor (factor 2) measures the strength of a respondent’s beliefs about a range of conspiracy theories except the global warming conspiracy, which does not load strongly on this factor. Note that, by design in factor analysis, this factor is uncorrelated with the free market-AGW axis factor. That is, it is unrelated to the factor that measures conflict between free market ideals and global warming theory.

Layperson’s Explanation

When you allow factor analysis to apply to all the variables, rather than applying it to predetermined groups of variables, you get a different relationship between factors to that obtained by Lewandowsky. One factor measures conflict between free market ideology and AGW theory, and one factor measures conspiracies, though just as with Lewandowsky’s work the conspiracy factor does not include AGW conspiracy theory. In fact, those who reject AGW are only more likely to endorse a single conspiracy theory: the AGW one. They are not otherwise more likely to be conspiracy theorists. Note that a simple logistic regression of “AGW rejection” against the various conspiracy theory variables might have identified this.

However, because Lewandowsky has separated the free market and AGW-rejection factors, and hasn’t included the AGW conspiracy theory variable in either of them, both of these factors are now likely to be correlated with the conspiracy theory variable. There is a correlation of -0.15 between the AGW factor and the conspiracy factor in Lewandowsky’s model, and of -0.77 between the free market ideals and AGW factors. I think these correlations work together in the SEM to give Lewandowsky’s results.

Further minor implications of the factor structure

It also appears that HIV denialism (HIVCause) and the cancer/smoking relationship (SmokeCause) are more likely to be endorsed by warmists, but only very weakly (they have weak negative loadings on factor 1). It also appears that those who endorse free market ideals are associated with the new world order conspiracy (it has a loading of 0.35 on factor 1). This is consistent with my personal experience of hanging out with anarchists (who commenter Paul tells me were defined as “left wing” at his university and who did include a few HIV denialists and had kooky ideas about smoking) and also of reading WUWT, where I have read quite a few people endorsing the new world order conspiracy. I’ve never seen a moon landing denialist, but the new world order and AGW denial conspiracies do get an airing over there. I did once see a guy deny special relativity because “you can’t square a speed, man” but I guess he was just commenting while very, very stoned.

Nonetheless, while these implications might be fun for poking fun at our political enemies, they don’t meet our loading criteria (0.4 or above) so we don’t include them in our interpretation of the final factors.

Further exploratory analysis

In this sample, 18% of respondents were found to be skeptics on the basis of their responses to questions 7 to 10. Factor 2 measures conspiracy theories. A linear regression model of factor 2 by whether subjects were skeptics found no relationship between skeptic/warmist position and the conspiracy factor. However, a linear regression of responses to the climate change conspiracy question was highly significant, with those who were warmists having an average value of 1.04 for this variable, while on average the skeptics’ value was higher by 2.76 (t statistic 45.66, p<0.001). Thus, skeptics were highly likely to endorse this conspiracy theory, but showed no significant difference on the conspiracy theory factor.

The two main factors were largely unchanged if factor analysis was conducted with only two or three factors instead of five.


When factor analysis was applied to the entire Lewandowsky dataset without prior assumption about the structure of the underlying constructs, only two important factors were identified. The most important factor measured the contrast between free market ideals and AGW endorsement, and the second measured endorsement of conspiracy theories in general. A fourth factor recorded space alien conspiracy theories. Thus factor 1 represented a contrast between two factors identified as separate by Lewandowsky.

Skeptics are no more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than warmists, except for the AGW conspiracy theory, which they were highly likely to endorse. Because this conspiracy theory is common, if it is included in a factor that measures conspiracy theories it will completely change the factor, and this factor will become statistically significantly different between warmists and skeptics.

Lewandowsky’s exploratory factor analysis assumed three separate factors measuring, separately, AGW endorsement, free market ideology, and conspiracy theories. This has two important implications:

  1. It forces factors to be generated according to pre-existing conceptions of which variables load onto which factors
  2. It does not require factors to be uncorrelated with each other

However, a more data-driven form of exploratory factor analysis that does not make prior assumptions about the structure of the data does not force this association, and leads to a completely different set of conclusions about conspiracy theories and AGW rejection. Specifically, that they are unrelated.

Factor 1, which measures the Free market-AGW axis, provides interesting confirmation of what we all know about the history and state of play of the debate over AGW. We all know that rejection of AGW theory has been driven primarily by some elements of the Republican party and free market think tanks and institutions (like Heartland). It’s therefore not unreasonable to expect that this historical development of the debate has constructed the present context, and leads to a division between free market believers and AGW believers. It’s possible to imagine an alternative universe in which AGW was rejected by unions and socialists on the grounds that it was a capitalist plot to undermine the development of the poor, and in this case we would see the opposite relationship, with those who reject free market ideals also rejecting AGW. Factor 1 in this data is a measurement of the state of play in the current debate, and gives statistical confirmation of what we all know: that those who reject AGW tend to come from a free market perspective (see e.g. Tony Watts on PBS recently whinging about taxes and regulation).

It is also unsurprising that the AGW conspiracy theory is endorsed by those who reject AGW theory. They know a lot of people and scientists agree with the theory, so obviously in rejecting it they will be likely to see it as a conspiracy.

This data also provides information for warmists who want to convince skeptics that they are wrong. Skeptic beliefs on AGW are closely linked to free market ideology, which is currently suffering stresses under the collapse of the neo-liberal global order after the global financial collapse. If warmists want to change skeptics’ minds, they need to target this nexus of free market ideology and AGW rejection, find models of response to AGW that can use free market ideals (such as carbon pricing mechanisms), more closely attack the failings of the free market ideology, point to past successes of free markets in dealing with crises, and separate the issue of the economic response from the science of the problem.

The factor analysis presented here suggests that AGW rejection is associated with a specific ideological landscape, and contrary to Lewandowsky’s findings, that it has no particular relationship with any conspiracy theory except the obvious: those respondents who thought AGW was not true were very likely to believe the science of AGW was part of a conspiracy theory or a hoax. They did not see this conspiracy theory in the same way as other conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky’s findings of a free market/ AGW rejection effect are robust, but his conspiracy findings only arise from the placement of restrictions on the initial factor selection method, and do not represent the true subtlety of skeptic ideology, which can be strongly pro-science in other areas but strongly paranoid about AGW. It is better to attack this specific thinking, which is often ideologically driven by factors external to the science, than to view skeptics as having a conspiratorial mindset in general.

What is already known on this topic

Lewandowsky’s research has shown an association between rejection of AGW theory and free market ideals. His finding that AGW skeptics also endorse conspiracy theories (or have a conspiratorial mindset) is controversial, and has been disputed on the basis of his data selection methods and data sources. His analysis has also been questioned because it assumes prior theory about cognitive models in exploratory factor analysis.

What this analysis adds

This analysis shows that making assumptions about which factors to construct generates a spurious association between conspiracy theory ideation and AGW rejection. This analysis shows that a more data-driven exploratory factor analysis does not associate conspiracy theory ideation with AGW rejection, but does confirm that those who reject AGW are likely to see AGW science as a conspiracy theory.

A note on comments about the analysis

I don’t believe that Lewandowsky’s decision to use pre-determined variables to construct factors was a deliberate attempt to smear skeptics. I think it’s a defensible decision to construct a factor set based on previous research and theory. I’m also not an expert on the underlying theory and philosophy of factor analysis, but I think the online skeptic/warmist community should be seen as sufficiently unique that it deserves its own, data-driven exploratory factor analysis. In this sense I think Lewandowsky made a mistake but I don’t think this should be read as meaning I am competent and he is not (or vice versa). It simply represents a disagreement about the framework from which to approach factor analysis. I think that this situation could potentially make a nice teaching example of the effect of forcing data to fit a pre-existing model when it is actually from a sample with a different underlying structural relationship between variables. Unfortunately, factor analysis includes a lot of art and these decisions can never be said to be wrong or right in any strict sense. So in comments here I am not interested in entertaining accusations of incompetence or deliberate manipulation of the analysis, either about me or Lewandowsky.

Appendix: Code

I don’t usually make my programming available when I report analyses on this blog, but in this case I will. It should not be necessary to read the code to reconstruct the methods as described in this post, but in case readers want to the code is available here. The code is divided into sections, which can be selected by changing the value of the variable contr.var. Set this variable to 1 to import the data, 2 to do basic pca, 3 to repeat pca on centred variables (this is completely irrelevant), 4 to do factor analysis with 2, 3 or 5 retained factors, and 5 to explore the differences between Lewandowsky’s factors and mine. In asking questions about code, please put the code indented in a comment, but first please try and read around it and read the comments – I have commented the code extensively so hopefully you can figure it out if you read and infer.

Most of this analysis was done while offline and I couldn’t check other people’s methods or results, so if you see obvious mistakes about variable choices or definitions, please tell me.


It has been pointed out to me in comments that Lewandowsky excluded the AIDS and AGW conspiracy theories from his conspiracy theory factor. I’ve changed the post to reflect that, and also added a brief comparison of the correlations between his three factors and mine. It doesn’t change the overall story, but IMO makes his results more robust.

Is Renee trapped in a dead end job?

While I was travelling in Germany, being forced to eat huge piles of food at restaurants and cafes, I noticed that many of the staff shoveling the food into the trough[1] were middle-aged men, something I also noticed when I was in Paris a few years ago. In contrast, this phenomenon is rarer in Japan (depending on the restaurant) and extremely uncommon in the UK and Australia. In the UK, restaurant staff are usually foreigners (Eastern European or Australian), while in Japan and Australia they tend to be students doing part-time jobs. Obviously there are exceptions to this, especially in owner-operated restaurants and in certain chains in Japan, and also Japan has a large number of staff working at restaurants and bars who are employed as full-time kaishain (the pinnacle of Japanese industrial rights) but young; however, the preponderance of middle-aged men in western European cafes is interesting. It’s interesting because in general, middle-aged men from the dominant cultural group of a country aren’t found in any industry in large numbers unless that industry has good wages and conditions. Certainly, Germany isn’t in the kind of dire economic straits that would drive men previously employed in solid jobs to take up dubious part-time work, so it’s reasonable to surmise that working in a restaurant as a waiter in Germany or France is a job with decent conditions and wages.

This led me to thinking about differences in approach towards managing inequality between continental Europe, Japan and the anglosphere. I think the anglosphere has an idea that it can reduce inequality through social mobility, in which poor people and/or their children, through education and training or hard work, can “move up” the “social ladder” to improve their situation; while Western Europe and Japan work on the idea of structural equality, in which jobs at the “low” end of the “social ladder” are renumerated sufficiently well as to enable a middle-aged male to raise a family on a single income even though he is not working in a high-end job.

I think social mobility might be a ponzi scheme, that is unsustainable and regressive and ultimately leads to entrenched inequality, racial tension and economic collapse. Like a lot of my thoughts on economics, this is probably a brain-fart, it’s definitely speculative, and I’m aware that there are a lot of people on both the left and right of politics who care about inequality who have reasoned and strong opinions about the importance of social mobility as a factor in reducing inequality. In this post I will lay out my understanding of the differences between the approach, discuss some of the possible failings of the social mobility model in the West, and explain why I think it causes the problems of inequality, racial tension and economic collapse. It’s a long post, so I’ll set it out in sections so readers can skip to the end.

Social Mobility vs. Structural Equality

First to define terms, which I am using very loosely here. Social mobility is the process by which poor people can improve their lot. Go to university, get a qualification, move onto work in banking and become rich so that you can employ a poor foreigner as your cleaner. In this model of managing inequality, some jobs (such as being a cleaner, a waiter or day labourer) are viewed as having no long term future, i.e. they don’t pay enough or have good enough conditions to support a family or any personal aspirations. In order to ensure that people don’t get trapped in these jobs for generations, welfare and education policies ensure that the children of people trapped in these jobs are able to “move up” to better jobs, leaving their class behind. This doesn’t help their families but is supposed to ensure that the children of the poor don’t suffer because of their parents failure to get a better job or a good education. In this model, inter-generational inequality is a bad thing but some people must inevitably be trapped in these jobs. Ideally, everyone can move out of these jobs, and people who worked their way up from poverty to wealth are esteemed. For example in today’s Guardian, Ed Milliband (an intellectual lightweight in the labour movement if ever there was one) states that he doesn’t mind people being rich so long as they worked for it. Of course, having got to riches they may enact a series of corporate policies guaranteed to entrench poverty in their employees but that’s okay because they worked hard to elevate themselves from poverty. This model of social mobility is often connected to notions of a deserving and undeserving poor: if you are poor but ensure you work hard for your minimum-wage job, never claim welfare, and make your kids go to school, you deserve support to get your kids to uni and a “real” job, so that they can look down on you once they become professors of neo-liberal economics; but if you slack off at your job, or teach your kids that there is no future and it’s not worth trying, you don’t deserve help; and if you look on the whole thing as a farce and refuse to work for sub-poverty level wages, then you don’t deserve any help from the state and neither do your kids. I should note that I am a beneficiary of this social mobility model, having been raised in a single-income tradesman’s family, but now with a good education under my belt working as an academic in Japan.

The alternative model I am comparing this to is the concept of structural inequality, in which the wages of “low end” jobs like cleaning, waiting and labouring are set so as to ensure that a person in this job can live a full life despite their sub-standard education and lower status. By “full life” of course I don’t mean lear jets and Bollinger, but financial security, the ability to live in a safe and clean home, and a little bit of disposable income to support the ordinary dreams of ordinary people. One often hears older folk opining about how this used to be possible in America: the fabled one-income family who had a summer cabin in the Catskills, and raised two kids with the wife at home despite the dad being nothing more than a factory worker at GM (or whatever). The idea behind this model is that somehow – through private companies making responsible judgments or government transfers – society maintains itself in such a way as to ensure that everyone at all social strata can be happy. Of course these models aren’t always great: the fabled American equality of the 1950s was established in a society that excluded blacks and women from the workforce, and societies that have this kind of system can be expensive, as witnessed in e.g. France, which is a pretty expensive place to live. A lot of neo-liberal economists criticize this system in often quite macho and scornful ways – they talk about “cutting the fat” and take a kind of macho pleasure in watching companies like GM or Japan Airlines struggling to manage the financial challenges of accrued benefits. Criticism of this system often have an element of moral judgment consistent with children’s stories about the squirrel that didn’t save nuts: societies with these systems are “unsustainable” and need to face up to reality, or are described as soft or idealistic, and there’s always this hint of joy or satisfaction at their struggles to maintain their systems, or at declining birthrates, or sluggish growth. But the societies that maintain these systems seem to be very happy with them. So what’s the story?

How social mobility has failed in the anglosphere

The first thing to note is that the social mobility model hasn’t worked particularly well in the UK or the USA. Inequality in the UK is terrible, and median incomes in the US have declined over the last 10 years; worse still, median incomes amongst the least skilled sectors of the economy have been declining steadily for 40 years,  despite productivity growth over the same period, with the difference being pocketed by the very rich – even during the recovery from the GFC. The Occupy Wall Street protests and the discussion of the one percent makes the point that over the last 40 years – as those low-skilled employees have seen their wages decline – the richest sector of society have concentrated their hold over capital, and in a capitalist system it is this concentration of control of capital that determines who gets the best jobs, who gets the most benefit from economic growth, and (sadly) who gets the most say over politics. Inequality doesn’t just make poor people unhappy, it also ensures that rich people get a greater say over things like health insurance or industrial policy.

An additional consequence of inequality in the UK, and probably in the USA too, is that poor people increasingly lose access to the basic services that are necessary to maintain a reasonable standard of living. Nearly 40% of the UK population experience fuel poverty, and according to recent research in the Guardian one in five children are living in poverty; I think now 40% of the US population is receiving some form of food stamps, and the British government has had to announce a “beds in sheds” taskforce to deal with the growing problem of extremely poor temporary housing in gardens and sheds. Looking at these societies as a whole we see not an improvement in the lot of poor people, but an increasing number of desperately poor people living in very precarious circumstances. It might be possible to argue that this isn’t the fault of the economic model as a whole (Britons always blame immigration for their problems), but as the rich grab more and more of the world’s excess wealth, and the poor get forced to live in sheds and eat under-nourishing food from charities, I think it’s safe to say there is something wrong. The model has failed. Why?

Social mobility as a ponzi scheme

The first and most obvious problem is that we can’t all “move up” the social ladder. Someone has to empty the bins and wait on tables. Who is going to do that? In the absence of significant immigration from poorer nations, it’s fairly obvious that society has to find a way to fill those jobs, and so long as the people paying for them refuse to remunerate them properly, other social forces are going to conspire to ensure that someone gets stuck in them. The commonest mechanisms for achieving this are race- and class-based discrimination, which operate to ensure that some small portion of the population remains trapped in a social stratum that works for peanuts. Whether it’s economic (paying Aboriginal farmhands in sugar and tobacco), social (old boy networks to ensure only certain classes get certain jobs), subtle (using university admission interviews to screen out working class applicants) or open (Jim Crow laws) they all serve to ensure that some people are forced to restrict their job choices and their economic future.

A society which aims to maintain certain jobs at a poverty-level wage, and offers no solution to the problem of poverty except “get up and get out” is going to collapse unless it can find a way to force others to do those jobs. In societies with high population growth it may be possible to maintain this through part-time student labourers, though in general the only reason students will fulfill this part time labouring role is that there are insufficient welfare transfers to enable them to study without working (i.e. a system which discourages poor peoples’ access to social mobility). But in societies with low population growth, there are only two alternatives to entrenching class- or race-based inequality: construct an economic order in which as many people fall down the ladder as rise up it; or import new labourers from much poorer nations. Looking in from the outside, it appears that the USA has adopted the former trick. The middle-class is shrinking and losing much of its previous economic privileges, and this isn’t occurring because the top tiers of society are growing; rather, people are sliding down the social ladder, and the frantic struggle of the middle class to avoid the loss of these accepted economic rights is having huge effects on American society (see below).

The other option, preferred by the UK, is to import labour to fill jobs that British working class people consider beneath them. This, also, has ramifications at both a global and local level, and it doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the ponzi scheme – just delays its effects while creating social pressures at home.

Social mobility, immigration and social tension

Importing migrant workers to do shit jobs in countries with residual class tensions and a model of social mobility creates racial tension. The local working class, restricted in their upward social mobility, see migrant labourers as competition for jobs that they themselves are trying to escape but can’t; neo-liberal welfare policies, often implemented as part of this social order, lead to restrictions or conditions on access to welfare for the “undeserving” poor, which creates the perception of conflicts over limited shares of welfare money (even though in most neo-liberal economies, migrants get zero welfare support from the government). Furthermore, in societies such as the UK and Australia where racist views of migrants can be quite common, having large numbers of migrants fill shit jobs reinforces the impression that they are not a valid long-term employment prospect, both culturally and through pushing down the wages of these jobs. Of course it’s possible – as happens in countries like Australia and Canada – for these migrants to fill these jobs temporarily as they themselves move up the ladder, but this is only possible in these countries because they have a new population, space, growing economies, and a vibrant political culture with few class barriers. In societies like the UK, which are stagnating industrially and have a long tradition of racial and class discrimination, as well as limited space and poor infrastructure investment, high migrant intake means pressure on already poor infrastructure, resentment, and the growth of nasty movements like the English Defense League. In addition to these obvious pressures, neo-liberal economies with a focus on social mobility also tend to obsess about government spending on infrastructure, but large migrant intakes demand planned infrastructure investment which private companies won’t do, and this exacerbates conflicts over access to welfare, housing and other scarce resources.

Inter-generational conflict has also been created by this ponzi scheme, because as people heading towards retirement age are seeing their own economic rights withering they begin to look elsewhere in society for ways to save money and husband resources. Hence we see the unedifying sight of the Tea Party demanding cuts in all government spending except Medicare, because its members are mostly angry baby boomers; or Paul Ryan’s budget plan including a “grandfather clause” that will protect benefits for the current generation, but destroy them for its children. It’s a kind of economic cannibalism, in which older people destroy their children’s future to prevent themselves from sliding down the social scale. The Tea Party is a socially destructive movement, spawned entirely through conflicts over welfare and government spending and populated with insecure middle class baby boomers worried about their future. It’s a perfect symptom of the end game of the social mobility construct.

Increased inequality, the housing ladder and the global financial crisis

In addition to denigrating all forms of welfare spending to promote equality, attacking minimum wages and any protection of workers’ rights and conditions, neo-liberal economics sets its store by government fiscal “responsibility,” and the first and last word in neo-liberal economics is tax and spending cuts. But as governments cut spending on infrastructure, welfare and regulation, the middle class loses its previous economic protections and rights, and as we have seen in America, its real wages begin to decline as services previously provided by government are privatized and increase in cost. The most obvious example of this in the USA is healthcare, and in the UK transport. The neo-liberal solution to this is to encourage households to go into debt, and this is exactly what US and British households did in the lead up to the global financial crisis (GFC). To protect their living conditions they took the government’s advice and went into debt in order to wager on that most precarious of ponzi schemes, the housing market. The result was economic collapse, bankruptcy and further reductions in the living standards of the middle class. In response governments introduced further cost-cutting measures in order to bail out the banks, driving more of the middle class down the income ladder in what is, essentially, a huge correction on the previous 20 years of social mobility. In addition, the housing stock has decreased, and larger proportions of society in the post-GFC era are unable to afford to buy a house.

The result of 20 years of neo-liberal spending cuts and workplace “reform” has been a financial collapse, destruction of welfare, and loss of all the gains that the working and middle class supposedly made during that period, as well as a reduction in the availability of housing and capital for these sections of society. The only country to escape this has been Australia, which has done so through good luck (a mining boom) and careful avoidance of the worst excesses of neo-liberal policy. But even there the housing market is clearly unsustainable, and becoming increasingly unaffordable for a new generation, indicating that social mobility will soon stall or go backwards there too.

The lesson of the last 20-30 years of neo-liberal policy is that inequality will out. You can’t privatize the responsibility for social mobility while simultaneously reforming workplaces and cutting government spending. Something will give, and in the case of the anglosphere, it was the GFC.

A note on government vs. private support of structural equality

Policies of structural inequality obviously rely on making sure that people on the bottom of the income ladder can afford to live, long-term, on the wages from their job, especially since they’re unlikely to ever gain access to significant capital. Doing so doesn’t necessarily require government intervention though – it may be possible to achieve it through a social compact with business. I think this is what happened in Germany and Japan, where there is a complex social agreement between unions, companies, governments and civil society. In this agreement everyone agrees not to rock the boat, but companies give up some element of profit for the greater good, the upper class give up stratosphere wages, and the unions give up on certain elements of workplace rights and social activism. The result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it leads to a society where, for example, my old kickboxing teacher in Matsue could afford to buy an apartment in Hiroshima, raise two children, and live in a different city to his family, all on one wage – as a television salesperson in an electric store. Can you do that in modern Britain or America?

Systems of structural equality can be maintained through cultural and social agreement, not just through Western-styled government intervention. I think the problem is that the anglosphere, with its focus on excellence, individualism and achievement, sees the kinds of cultural and social agreements made in Asia or continental Europe as fundamentally repressive, limiting and – ultimately – soft. Hence the almost visceral glee with which neo-liberal commentators greet Europe’s economic problems, or Japan’s low growth, while ignoring Britain and the USA’s obvious huge social problems, the inherent inequality of its economic system, and the long-term downward trajectory of education, health and industry in those countries.


I think the notion of social mobility as a cure for social inequality is untenable. Obviously social mobility is a desirable goal in itself – people should be able to do what they want to do, if they are able and it doesn’t cost society too much to help them – but as a cure for inequality it doesn’t work. The best way to address inequality is to reorient the economy, the state and the cultural order to ensure that people who do shit jobs can afford to live full and happy lives while doing those jobs, and anyone can pursue any career – no matter how “low” the work they do might be – if that’s what they want or are able to do. Obviously society needs intellectuals and academics (though maybe not economists), engineers and doctors, and people should be encouraged to do those things, but that doesn’t mean that the person who cleans their toilet should be employed under such terrible conditions that if they don’t somehow find a way to be an engineer themselves (or marry one) they will never be able to afford to raise a family, live in a proper house, be warm in water, or eat healthy food. Current economic orthodoxy in the anglosphere doesn’t allow for this concept, and it’s one of many ways in which I think the English-speaking world stands to gain from paying more attention to Europe and Asia, instead of always assuming that their own economic and cultural ideas are the best.

fn1: If Germany is serious about reducing its CO2 emissions, here is a simple method: eat more reasonable amounts. Everyone in South Germany ate, by my estimation, 20-50% more than they needed to, and most people by the age of 30 appeared to be overweight or obese. This also has interesting ramifications for discussion about food inequality around the world. There’s a post in this, I think.

Do any of these dickheads look virtual to you?

A couple of days ago Australia’s prime minister (PM) Julia Gillard found herself in the unprecedented position of having to host an extended news conference to hose down allegations of corruption from 17 years ago. A slightly abridged version of the news conference is available here, and it’s a barn-storming performance by Ms. Gillard that shows some of her finer qualities. My reader(s) from countries with a more timid political climate might like to feast their eyes on it as an example of how politicians should handle the idiots from the press.

This post isn’t about the press conference or Gillard’s finer qualities, but rather about the issue she was asked to address late in the press conference about how to handle what she (scornfully) describes as the “Americanization” of debate with its “lunar right, tea party fringe” and the role of new media in promoting a vitriolic atmosphere of political debate. The press conference itself is supposedly an example of how the internet has changed politics, since many of the allegations about corruption that Gillard has been forced to address have only been kept alive on the internet, by a couple of (apparently) misogynist and lunatic websites. A common question that consumes a lot of the (admittedly limited) processing power of the average journalist’s brain is whether the rise of internet communications and “new” media is corrupting political debate, and what journalists can and should do about it: near the end of the press conference Gillard summarizes this question more eloquently than any journalist could, and calmly points out to them what they should be doing about it – she doesn’t point out that her need to hold the press conference at all is an implicit proof that journalism has failed to rise to the task.

At the same time the Observer is running another of the seemingly endless run of journalistic pleadings about whether the blogosphere is responsible for the modern atmosphere of political hysteria. It cites some of the now famous research that claims the blogosphere fragments rather than facilitates political debate, and calls on some (imo) fairly trite stereotypes of the internet generation as self-serving and individualistic. But is blogging, and internet debate more widely, really the cause of this modern hysteria? Can journalists really stand above the fray and pretend to be offering a better, more reasoned or more “balanced” form of public debate? Or is this all smoke-and-mirrors aimed at hiding journalism’s corruption, and subsequent loss of control of the space of cultural and political discourse?

Returning to Gillard’s press conference, I can’t say I’m convinced that the problems she faces would just go away if a couple of vile and sexist websites were to disappear, and judging by her tone when she deals with a journalist called “Sid” from the Australian newspaper, she doesn’t think so either. Although the allegations she was confronting have been floating around for years, they were largely unknown to the wider public until 2007 – when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. And then 2010 – when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. And then last weekend, when the Australian published a defamatory version of them. Are we seeing a pattern here? On every occasion that it has chosen to move these allegations from the fringe blogosphere into public debate, the Australian has had to apologize and publish a retraction, and in 2010 it sacked the journalist who wrote the story. This newspaper – Australia’s only national newspaper – is on record as having declared a plan to destroy Australia’s environmental party, The Greens; its editor in 2003, Paul Kelly, traveled the country openly drumming up support for the Iraq war and calling anyone who opposed it cowards. The Australian is owned by News International – on the same weekend as the Observer was blathering about standards on the blogosphere, News International’s the Sun was publishing pictures of Prince Harry’s naked arse, presumably in the interests of free speech. This is the same News International that probably used illegal means to obtain and then broadcast a recording of Prince Charles telling his girlfriend he wished he was her tampon; the same News International that hacked a dead girl’s cellphone and deleted some messages, giving her parents false hope that she was still alive. The same News International – an American company, incidentally, run by an Australian – that probably also hacked the phone of the UK prime minister, and the families of a couple of soldiers who died in Iraq.

So is Gillard’s problem really with the blogosphere alone? As she observes in the press conference, in a world with more and more information people will tend to put more weight on the opinions of trustworthy mainstream sources; but when these mainstream sources simply regurgitate the opinions of “the nutjobs and misogynists on the internet” then the issue becomes bigger than just the opinions of some lonely wanker with a PC – the bigger issue is the judgment and respectability of the employees of a newspaper company that thinks hacking dead girls’ cellphones is a justifiable act. The reality is that journalists are cheap and easily bought, and they were running down the respectability of their own profession long before the internet made it possible for lonely misogynists to pile on.

But looking a little wider, beyond the issue of what journalists choose to confer legitimacy on, is the increasing nastiness of public debate really the fault of arseholes on the internet at all? The picture at the top of this page is from a rally against Australia’s carbon price. The poster at the back refers to Ms. Gillard, and is suggesting in quite a vile and sexist way that she is the sexual toy of the leader of Australia’s environmentalist party, Bob Brown. The man standing under that banner at the front, with the microphone, telling the demonstrators he agrees with them, is Tony Abbott, the leader of Australia’s opposition liberal party and Australia’s potential future PM. The woman next to him is Bronwyn Bishop, a senior and respected politician from that same party. One might call it merely an error of judgment, but it’s hard to say that they’re doing much to keep debate above board and polite when they choose these kinds of banners as their backdrop. Where are the bloggers in this picture? It wasn’t a lonely wierdo on the internet who called a feminist activist in America a “slut” for wanting contraception to be covered by health insurance – that was Rush Limbaugh, a major media figure. It was a Republican who decided to invoke the 10th Century fiction of “legitimate rape” in defending his anti-choice views; it was a politician, not a blogger, who put rifle cross hairs over pictures of American democrats (or was it their offices?); and there are more than a few birthers in the Republican party (indeed, in congress).

So is the problem really with the blogosphere and the increasing fragmentation of political debate on the internet, or is that a symptom of a wider unhinging, that is being driven by powerful forces in politics and the media? Indeed, even though he’s completely wrong and definitely not honest or well-meaning, there’s not really anything wrong with what Anthony Watts does, in principle, in his little denialist fantasy land. There’s also lots of debate and engagement between the two sides of the AGW “debate” on the internet – if anything, the question is whether there should be less, not more, given how wrong and mendacious the denialists can be. And the role of the media here, too, is questionable since the average journalist’s understanding of the concept of “balance” doesn’t extend past “giving a nutjob a voice on national tv.” The notion that balance is best obtained through calm and rational presentation of facts and getting it right doesn’t seem to have stuck with modern journalists, who constantly trot the likes of “Lord” Monkton out to defend the indefensible – and in fact as the science gets more settled and the denialist population shrinks to a smaller and crazier rump, the journalist notion of “balance” just leads to crazier and crazier people being put on national tv to represent the “opposing view.” Again, is this the blogosphere’s fault? Sure some of those bloggers love to feed the fires, but everyone is craving the legitimacy of the mainstream public eye, and it’s journalists who offer that legitimacy, not blogs with too many colours and 30% of the words in block letters. If AGW was a fiction conjured up by powerful voices in the mainstream, then Watts’s work would be honourable rather than misguided, and he would be justified in both using harsh language, and allowing insulting and rude language on the part of his commenters. And even though some of the stuff he does there – particularly the shenanigans with publishing private correspondence that just happens to be embarrassing – is scummy and low and something he should be ashamed of, that kind of stuff is par for the course with national media and has been for a very long time.

I guess there’s a fine line between being an arsehole and being a hero – a lot of politicians seem not to like the Watergate journalists, or Assange, and I guess from their perspective the work of these people is more than just an inconvenience. But there’s more than enough arseholes in politics and the media, and they’ve been around long enough and doing dirty enough work, that one hardly needs to look to the internet for the cause of the increasingly strident and aggressive nature of modern political debate. The Palins and Limbaughs and Abbotts and Murdochs of the world have pretty much cornered the market on being nasty in public, and given how often journalists offer them the fig-leaf of legitimacy through unquestioning regurgitation of their crap, acceptance of the “legitimate questions” they raise, or straight-out editorializing in their favour, I think it’s fair to say that when journalists start pointing the finger at new media they’re either trying to shift the blame, or warn each other that their time is up. They certainly aren’t trying to improve the quality of public debate, because they and their political masters managed to debase that years ago.

… for questioning the science. Ironic, don’t you think? All this thinking about Flood got me contemplating global warming, so I wandered through some global warming-related sites and ended up at the infamous Watts Up With That, where I found two egregious examples of poor science, made particularly annoying by their patronizing tone and vicious ill humour. I’m not an expert on global warming science, but I know a little bit about research methodology, the validity of classification methods, and time series analysis, so I decided, perhaps foolishly, to comment on the two offending posts. Within two days I had been banned from the site, though not before I’d been roundly insulted by its resident flying monkeys and not with an official declaration – just quietly shuffled off to the spam queue.

Me, spam!!! Oh, the humanity!

Poorly documented and subjective classification methods

The first, and most egregious example of bodgy science that I commented on was an example of the ludicrous “surface station audit” that Watts and his cronies are engaging in. Recently Watts reposted one of the surface stations that his crew have audited, with a glowing commentary that reproduces the basic facts of the original audit. This post also includes a healthy dose of green baiting, because some governor or other has established a pro-anthropogenic global warming (AGW) website and this is just the worst thing ever so should be sneered at. Unfortunately, if you follow the link to the original “audit” (here) you find in comments that a major piece of the audit is completely wrong. Basically, at issue in this audit is the construction of a tennis court close to the temperature station, and the presence of  a trash burning can (some weird American invention) very close to the weather station. Watts claims that the tennis courts were built in “the early 1980s” and that this corresponds with a sudden increase in temperature readings – obviously this could be linked to the tennis courts. But in the original audit someone who lives in the area has posted to say that the tennis courts were built in 1973 and gives a link. In reposting the “audit,” Watts ignores this information and directly links the tennis courts with the 1980s temperature jump – which is false. He also consistently refuses to answer questions about the facts related to the tennis court.

The big problem here, that Watts won’t admit to, is that his classification system in the surface station audit is completely bogus. It suffers from three problems, which anyone who knows anything about research methodology would immediately recognize as “junk science” (to use a Watts-ism).

  1. It is not objective: he has given no criteria for distance of a tennis court, no standards for waste heat sources, no standard methods for obtaining data, no system for establishing potential changes in data collection. In trying to establish when the tennis court (a potential heat source) was installed, he just chatted to a neighbour who admitted she wasn’t there when the courts were built. No reference to land and environment courts, no attempt to contact the owners. Worse still, when he is given data about the actual time when the court was built, he ignores it and reblogs the original (erroneous) date. This is, to use a scientific term, bullshit. There’s no objective assessment standard here at all.
  2. It is inaccurate: It is clear that Watts doesn’t care about little details like time, frequency or distance. He didn’t care to establish the exact date of the tennis court’s installation – was wrong by 10 years! – and has consistently failed to answer the questions I asked him about the trash burning can. How long was it there for? When were temperatures recorded – before or after the commencement of use of the burning can? Why was it removed? There’s no way a trash burning can can induce observations consistent with global warming if it was only there for 6 months. Watts can’t answer these questions because he doesn’t care about a 10 year error in estimation of when a heat source was placed near the station, and he doesn’t care about how long a waste heat source was functioning right next to a surface station.
  3. It is not blinded to the observed data: this is the worst of all possible worlds. In his post Watts makes it clear that his assessment of the validity of the station siting is directly related to his assessment of the temperature trend at the station. This is precisely the wrong way to categorize stations. Furthermore, when challenged about his bullshit assessment criteria, he defends them by saying nearby stations don’t show the same trend. This is both arrant shite (nearby stations could be underwater for all I know), and a further example of the same bias. You never, ever classify experimental groupings by the outcome! This is rule number one of good science! Imagine if a pharmaceutical company excluded from its research any patients who did not respond positively to its drug because they were “biased.” Would you trust that drug? That’s what Watts’s station audit does.

This is absolutely the stoney end of the scientific method but it is common practice at Watts Up With That. When he posted his latest “paper” (haha, see below) for “peer review” (actually, editing), he was accused of the same thing – using the result he was looking for to classify stations. It’s a consistent problem in his work, and in other work he references. Which leads me in to the second thread I commented on …

Tautological reasoning with erroneous statistics

Watts recently posted a scan of a 1987 conference presentation by one Jim Goodridge, entitled Population and Temperature Trends in California, which predates Mann’s famous “hockey-stick” presentation and claims to find major flaws in the California temperature record. Unfortunately, this paper is an extremely poor research article, poorly presented with extremely bad statistical methods, and it shows nothing. Attempting to point this out to Watts is probably what got me banned, because criticizing mainstream climate science is fine but criticizing a paper Watts likes – even a crappy one – is unacceptable.

This paper basically divides all of California’s temperature stations into “urban” and “rural” categories and shows that the urban stations are warming and the rural ones are not. Unfortunately, this isn’t much of a gotcha moment because the method of defining “urban” and “rural” is to divide the stations into two groups according to their temperature trend. Those that have a temperature trend greater than 0.0125 per year are “urban” and those that don’t are “rural.” That is, Goodridge concludes that a set of stations he defined by their warming trend show warming, and a group of stations that he defined by their cooling trend don’t show warming. Alert the press!

Goodridge then goes on to show that the rural stations’ temperature trend correlates with sea surface temperatures, while the urban stations correlate with temperature. This is treated as a revelation by Watts’s flying monkeys, but is completely irrelevant because it’s purely statistical artifact. Under standard global warming theory, sea surface temperatures warm more slowly than the land – they should be expected to correlate with data from a group of weather stations defined purely through their low warming trend. Similarly, population is increasing over time, so should be expected to correlate with any other time series that is warming over time – e.g. data from a group of weather stations identified by having a warming trend greater than 0.0125 per year.

This is exactly the same kind of subjectivity being used in the surface stations audit. If this was done in a trial of a new drug it would never get published. It’s reprehensible! The flying monkeys try to justify it by pointing out that Goodridge (who was a “state climatologist”) observed that

In general the classification of records as urban or rural is fairly close to reality as the writer knows it from viewing most of the sites

as if this is an objective criterion. It’s not, and if it were Goodridge would have divided his sites up according to his classification from the very beginning. On this thread I repeatedly pointed out that there are established standards for defining “rural” and “urban” and he could have just used them, but funnily enough no one was interested. They’re much more satisfied with Goodridge’s post hoc justification than with objective classification. I pointed out that if a climate scientist did the same thing they would be up in arms. Imagine if a climate scientist said this:

stations were defined as ‘accurate’ if the regression slope of temperature was greater than 0.01. Accurate stations showed a significant warming trend, while inaccurate ones showed cooling. This is clear evidence that the world is becoming warmer.

I don’t think the Watts crew would let that fly. But if someone who agrees with them does it, his subsequent clarification that the station division seems about right is good enough for them.

That’s not science. Furthermore, Goodridge’s analyses don’t include any time series adjustments, and you absolutely do not calculate correlations for time series using the standard Pearson correlation coefficient (as he did). This is weak. But if you say so you draw a huge amount of flak and ultimately get banned – with no warning or announcement.

The rank hypocrisy of denialism

Watts up with that is a classic example of the hypocrisy of denialism. In the very post that I commented on, Watts posts up two emails between climate scientists, in which one refers to Goodridge as a “nitpicky jerk.” In response, Watts says these scientists “are some piece of work, aren’t they?” After 50 or so comments on this thread, I was forced to post this:

Since I’ve posted on this thread I’ve been called a Nazi, accused of personal attacks, called a hater (by you), stupid, accused of getting “uppity” and “worked up” (by you), accused of “nit-picking” (ironic in light of the emails you’ve published), accused of being incapable of understanding what others write, and you’ve had to censor one comment for saying bad things about me. Also, even though it’s clear that I don’t want my identity revealed, you’ve tried to do so and have even published my place of work, in a very hostile forum.

Watts’s response was to deny the Nazi part, and after I pointed out to him that he himself had censored the comment containing the phrase, he subsequently implied I had accused him of calling me a Nazi (which I clearly didn’t). So when climate scientists use the word “jerk” they are “a piece of work,” but when Watts’s flying monkeys lay into me en masse it’s just robust debate. When it comes to robust debate they’re complete naifs, however – nothing I said there is anything like the challenge I’ve been subjected to by commenters like Noism, Paul and various drive-by commenters in my Tolkien and Fascism or Allies World War 2 Race Trap posts, and I didn’t call anyone in those threads a nazi, hater or idiot. I didn’t call Noisms a coward, either, for not using his real name – which Watts did in his very next reply to me. Charming people over there, Watt?

But the hypocrisy doesn’t stop there. Just a couple of posts prior to this post – which contains two stolen emails – Watts reposts an opinion piece from the Heartland Institute in which they decry the theft of emails from the Heartland Institute. Apparently when denialists do it it is a quest for justice, but when a climate scientist does it it is a crime. After just two days of challenge they banned me from their threads – but they complain if climate scientists get defensive and evasive after 20 years of the same treatment. But compare: currently Tamino has a thread in which he critiques a paper by Hansen, who the denialists hate, and that thread has 104 comments of reasonable discussion about whether the paper is flawed. Yet I’m supposed to believe it’s the climate scientists who are prickly about criticism?

In case you thought it stops there though, Watts’s approach to the ethics of publication is founded entirely in hypocrisy. He and his flying monkeys are constantly making jokes about climate scientists rushing to press with their results, and they dedicated a whole thread to bitching and moaning about Muller releasing his results to the press before peer review was complete. But Watts rushed out a press release about his own latest “paper” before he had even submitted it to a journal. When Watts does it it is an urgent effort to present pressing and important information, but when Muller did it it was an arrogant scientist protecting their reputation and drumming up funding. Ultimately of course, Watts’s paper is unpublishable – it contains no measures of uncertainty and doesn’t adjust for Time of Observation Bias, so it’s fundamentally flawed – but that didn’t stop him getting it into the press. He and his flying monkeys would be singularly angry at a climate scientist doing that. Furthermore, Watts won’t release the site classification details for his latest paper – having been deeply involved in a campaign to force mainstream climate scientists to release every scrap of their data and code. Of course, the climate scientists, being government funded, are covered by FOI rules and obligations to funders and courts. Not so the idiots at WUWT, who can make any claims they want and keep their data entirely private. The whole site is like an object lesson in projection – every single criticism they lay on climate scientists, they themselves are doing in spades. Even the omnipresent “alarmism” accusation is rife across the site. In the same breath that they talk about “alarmist” scientists exaggerating AGW for a political agenda, they will talk about the risk of impending fascism due to the political machinations of environmentalists and elites. That’s alarmism! Watts depends on this alarmism for donations, but saying so is oh so incredibly crass (not that I did) – while accusing scientists of exaggerating AGW for funding is de rigeur on every thread.

A bunch of clowns

For the last couple of years some bunch of madcap polar scientists have been taking bets on the arctic sea ice extent at maximum melt. Each time, Tamino at Open Mind has stomped the field with his predictions, and the Watts Up With That crowd have massively over-estimated sea ice extent, because each year they think is the year sea ice will recover. This year they have been a bit quieter, but they are currently hosting a thread about “when will the cooling begin” which includes a link to this doozy from February, in which some idiot deletes 40 years of data from a 100 year series in order to prove that a lake’s depth is related to solar cycles – without mentioning that the lake’s source rivers are heavily influenced by human behavior (a point raised in the comments). Gee, I wonder if they’d accept that from a climate scientist?

These people are basically completely ignorant of the scientific method, data collection techniques, the basic rules of classification and validation, and any statistics that isn’t built into MS Excel. They are ill-mannered, defensive, hypocritical and shrill, and they are consistently wrong about everything they touch. This year the arctic sea ice is going to reach an all-time record low, just five years after the last one, at the same time as Watts and his flying monkeys are postulating a rapid recovery, claiming all temperature records are fudged, and predicting a return to a cooling world next year. They are simultaneously sneering at any environmentalist ideas (witness this response to the suggestion of using urine for carbon capture technology), any science which suggests humans can affect the climate, and any solutions for same. In the long march of history, once global warming has begun to really eat into our environment, these people will be viewed not as harmless clowns but as criminal propagandists, the way we now view the people who protected Big Tobacco. They don’t don’t accept any kind of genuine scientific debate, and they will turn nasty and threatening if you even try. In my opinion they aren’t worth debating with, they aren’t set up to handle debate, and debate is not their interest. The entire site is an exercise in poisoning the well. Denialism has no credibility, and if Watts ever gets any of his work published it will be through deception and luck, and whatever journal publishes him will regret it.

So much for my first and only incursion into the denialosphere. Now I’m off to take a shower…

Goddamn! The things one has to do just to get an argument these days!

This is a response to my friend’s response to my previous post about Feng Shui’s 2056 dystopia. In essence, Paul objects to everything I say on principle, which makes it easy to argue with him. I just need to disagree with every sentence line by line. I’m cross-posting as well as commenting on his blog, because arguing is fun and dystopias are fun. All indents are Paul’s arguments, everything else is my response. I’ve indented for clarity, and so I can italicise lots of wanky references to George Orwell. Fuck, it makes me feel like a Decent. Quick! Invade Sri Lanka!

I’m going to take what the book says at face value

…. why would anyone do that? Kind of kills my review right there doesn’t it? so we’ll just pass right by that…

the central argument Stuart is advancing is that dystopian (and utopian) settings give us an insight into the writer’s politics

and yes, criticism of those settings also gives an insight into the reviewer. This is not a shock. But if anyone wants to read 1984, Brave New World, The Dispossessed and any of those weird anarchist tracts from the 19th century as anything but transparent screeds, they’re really pushing it[1]. In fact, we know they’re pushing it because everyone who ever wrote a utopia or a dystopia has identified their political reasons for so doing, and then gone on to write about it (or, in Orwell’s case, gone to war for it). That should count as a bit of a hint.

I assume that all factions in the game are meant to have some attractive angle to view them from

This has got to be arguing for the sake of it, right? We are talking about role-playing here, a sordid little corner of the world whose central  focus for the last 30 years has been developing worlds where the bad guys are so relentlessly and completely evil that you are morally justified in exterminating their entire race. The only games which don’t do that have tended to be based on morally grey novels. There is no sense in taking “the benefit of the doubt” as your point of departure for rpg criticism because chances are that the kung fu game you are playing – you know, the one where you are self-consciously playing a good superhero in battle with the supervillains – isn’t planning on showing any uncertainty about the moral fibre of its participants.

In short, there is no reason to assume that 2056 under the Architects is anything but the Mordor of our world. They stole my god (and my virginity, to boot![2]) so they could destroy the world. They’re made of poison, folks. Also, they’re called “the Architects of the Flesh”. I recommend taking this as a hint that you don’t want them shagging your sister.

Given this, I think it’s reasonable to assume that this world is designed and presented as a dystopia.

But everyone gets enough food. This is morally ambiguous because the setting also has hunger wiped out from the world, at the cost of food that makes McDonalds look tasty. Because of this, the food is a subverted utopian element, not a dystopian one.

Despite living in one, I’m no expert on dystopias, but I don’t think they are intended to be the same as “untopias” (or whatever). I think they are meant to represent a world corrupted by good intentions, which is why no-one in 1984 goes without food, and everyone in Soylent Green is happy. So a world you look at and don’t like, full of subverted utopian elements, is a dystopia. (This is why a lot of people refer to The Dispossessed as an anarchist dystopia).

The reason I saw in it [here Paul refers to the wierd 40x wage differential] was to contrast the gleaming ideals of the future (reasonable wage restraint) with the actual implementation (all the good stuff is still owned by elites). Again a utopian element is presented and then subverted.

I’m thinking of coming back to this on my blog, because it occurs to me now that if a bunch of hard-core (hah!) social democrats living in 1996 wanted to imagine a dystopia caused by social democracy gone wrong they could well have written this Feng Shui world. Alternatively, they could have waited until 1997, voted for Tony Blair, and sat back to enjoy the ride…

This assumes that a dystopia must be written as if everything is bad.

I think more one assumes that a dystopia is written as if everything is failed. The central tenet of good dystopian writing is that the human traits of the characters give hope for the future (which should be crushed, obviously) despite the huge power advantages of the world they are in. Hence Vincent finds true love (briefly), Shevek and Takver struggle to reclaim the revolution, etc. Part of the beauty of The Dispossessed, and the reason it is a genuinely “morally grey” dystopia (if it is a dystopia at all) is that Shevek and Takver do offer hope to reclaim the revolution at the end, in a triumph of human will (and love!) over systemic oppression. So adding a few elements of playability doesn’t render something dystopian[3]. Having a social system based on good intentions gone horribly wrong does, however.

By default it would [here Paul means it would be reasonable to assume that a dystopia represents a writer’s views, except that…] any reasonable amount of work will allow an author to drown their bias in the appropriate biases for other political views – unless you want to argue that a social democrat is totally incapable of writing 1984?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a Social Democrat did write 1984. We’re talking here  about a man who cashed in his commie mates to MI5 (with quite nasty comments about their intellect too) yet wrote a very nasty book about pre-war Imperialism (Burmese Days, where the protagonist passes the moral event horizon at the end of the book by literally kicking the dog), as well as a viciously bitter attack on communism (Homage to Catalonia) whose final chapter is a clear intimation of 1984’s genesis. He is a hero of the so-called Decent Left. I don’t think we need to assume he was anything else, even if he briefly flirted with anarchism in the 30s[5].

The scenarios you call dystopian contain a summary of your political views.
Certainly. If I say something is dystopic and you disagree, we might as well be arguing about politics. But there are some clear signals of dystopian writing, tropes if you will, and “grey food”, “no cars” and an all-powerful time-travelling government who want to control your thoughts are usually a big giveaway. Also, yes, when I claim London looks like a dystopia, I am making a claim which reflects my politics. I am, in effect, writing a text (shudder) and by inferring my politics/morality from that text you are engaging in literary criticism (though I don’t think either of us are being post-modern here except in the cliched sense).

Regarding London, we can safely assume that the govt doesn’t intend to create a dystopia. It’s their failed “good intentions” which make it so. My labelling it so enables you to (rightly) infer things about me politically – that I dislike high rents, police violence and cctv would be a good guess, because that’s what people generally criticise about this government. Alternatively you could infer I spend a lot of money at cheap brothels.

But if you did either you would be critiquing the text and before you know it, you’ll be having post-modern gay abortions, and snorting cocaine from baby’s bottoms. Also, you would be conceding my argument – unless you want to argue that FS 2056 has any good points strong enough to redeem it from the claim it is dystopic?

PS I really really ought to look up the definition of dystopia. But I don’t think that’s going to get us anywhere, is it?

fn 1: I have an excellent one about pirates, btw.

fn 2:  Not that it was doing me any good at the time

fn 3: consider The Culture, who you can’t help but sympathise with, and who are clearly a good place to live, but who also seem somehow fundamentally rotten[4]. And the process of viewing them as rotten – inevitable for most readers – is, I think, intended to cause one to question one’s own assumptions about how the world could be. This makes the Culture a morally ambiguous dystopia in a really subtle way. I think Iain Banks has written about this aspect of the dystopia himself.

fn 4: Interestingly, Iain Banks is a strong opponent of the Iraq war, even though The Culture are the apotheosis of Decent Liberalism.

fn 5: which at the time didn’t count for much anyway. Social Democratic unions were pro-anarchist until the Central Committee called them off (a central criticism of the Stalinists in homage to catalonia), and if that’s not enough proof: my Grandfather fought for the POUM, but voted Thatcher 40 years later.