The Yellow Dragon can use Stinking Cloud at will

The Yellow Dragon can use Stinking Cloud at will

Today it was 26C in Tokyo, and we had our first taste of this year’s yellow dust, the strange and nasty pollution that tends to drift over Japan from China during spring and summer. Today’s was the worst I have ever seen in 5 years in Japan – the above photograph, taken from my ground floor balcony, shows the sky at about 3pm today, just after the cloud reached us. Apparently in Matsue, in Western Japan, visibility was down to 5 km. In case this seems like a strange thing to care about, let me assure you this “weather” is not pleasant: it causes sneezing, eye irritation, headaches and drowsiness in many people when it is at its worst, and I think some towns in Kyushu issued alerts that would cause some people to stay inside (especially those with respiratory problems). The US army monitors this phenomenon in Korea and issues regular warnings. Of particular recent concern is the increasing concentration of what the Japanese call “PM2.5,” very small particles of pollutants of size less than 2.5 microns, which seem to arise from industrial pollution and smog, and have specific associated health concerns. According to the Global Burden of Disease 2010, Ambient PM Pollution is the 4th biggest cause of lost disability-adjusted life years in China, and ranks much higher as a cause of years of life lost than of years of disability. By way of comparison it is ranked 16 in Australia and 10 in the USA.

Some part of the yellow dust problem is natural, due to sandstorms in the interior of China, but in the past 10 years the problem has become worse and its health effects more significant. No doubt part of the concern about its health effects arises from greater awareness, but there is also a confluence of factors at work in China that create the problem: desertification, soil erosion and pollution, and industrial pollution due primarily to coal power and transport. It’s becoming increasingly clear that as China develops, it needs to make a shift away from coal power and personal transportation, and it needs to do it soon. No matter how bad the yellow dust is in Japan, it has become very bad in China, and concern is growing about the seriousness of its health and economic effects.

This puts China on the horns of a dilemma. Development is essential to the improvement of human health, but the path China has taken to development, and the rapidity of its industrial and economic growth, are seriously affecting environmental quality. It’s possible that China is the canary in the coalmine of western development, and may be the first country to find its economic goals running up against its environmental constraints – and this despite a rapid slowing in population growth. China is going to have to start finding ways to reverse desertification, soil erosion, and particulate pollution, because it cannot afford to continue losing marginal farmland, degrading the quality of its farmland, and basing its industrial and urban growth on highly-polluting fossil fuels.

This raises the possibility that China needs to introduce a carbon tax (or better still, a carbon-pricing system) for reasons largely unrelated to global warming. A carbon pricing system with options for purchasing offsets, linked into the EU market, would potentially encourage reforestation and reductions/reversals in the rate of desertification; it would also provide economic incentives for investments in non-fossil fuel-based energy sources, probably nuclear for the long term and renewables for the short term. The government, by selling off permits, would be able to raise money to help manage the infrastructure and health needs of the poorest rural areas most in need of immediate development. These effects are important even without considering the potential huge benefits for the world from China slowing its CO2 emissions. I notice I’m not alone in this idea; Rabett Run has a post outlining the same environmental issues, and suggesting that there are many direct economic and social benefits of such a system.

This is not just of practical importance to China, but it’s rhetorically a very useful thing to note: that a lot of carbon sources (and most especially coal) have huge negative health and social consequences in their own right; raising the cost of using them and finding financial incentives to prevent or reverse deforestation is of huge benefit for a lot more reasons than just preventing runaway climate change. It would be cute indeed if China’s immediate economic and environmental problems became the cause of strong action to prevent climate change; on the other hand, it would be very sad if the focus on the AGW aspects of carbon pricing – which are a shared international burden rather than a national responsibility – led China’s decision makers to miss the other vital environmental problems it can address. Especially if failure to address those other environmental problems caused China’s economic growth and social liberalization to stall or fall backwards.

If any country is going to run up against environmental limits to growth, it is China; and if China can avoid that challenge, and the social and health problems it will cause, then there is great hope for the future of the planet. So let’s hope the Chinese can come to terms with their growing environmental challenges as adroitly as they have dealt with some of their others … and if their efforts to tackle those problems will benefit the rest of the world too.

The struggle for improved town planning laws continues unabated...

The struggle for improved town planning laws continues unabated…

Today’s Guardian is running an article about the controversy of renaming Volgograd to Stalingrad for the annual celebrations of that particularly brutal period in World War 2. If anyone hasn’t read Anthony Beevor’s book on this topic, I strongly recommend it – I don’t know how factual it is but it’s an excellent read anyway. Apparently, according to this article, the decision to rename Volgograd to Stalingrad for this few days of the year (covering the time when the Nazis surrendered) is controversial because it is seen as honouring Stalin, who was in charge at the time. From the article:

Communists and other hardliners credit him with leading the country to victory in the second world war and making it a nuclear superpower, while others condemn his purges, during which millions were murdered.

Stalin was definitely a bad, bad man, who did bad, bad things, and although some have argued that many of the bad things he did were necessary conditions to enable the rapid industrialization that gave the USSR the power to destroy Hitler, others would probably just as likely argue that his excesses reduced the USSR’s power to resist invasion. Beevor doesn’t make a judgment either way but certainly describes how Stalin’s behavior before the war and in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa made the Nazis’ job easier, but by contrast Aly and Heim in Architects of Annihilation argue, at least by implication, that Stalin’s programs of “de-kulakization” and industrialization – which were accompanied by famine, mass relocation and the destruction of whole communities – were essential to the later war effort and were actually copied by Hitler’s planners and demographers as they set about the extermination of the Jewish race and the residents of Eastern Europe. So in this sense it could be argued that Stalin’s specific pre-war policy framework[1] may have been an essential pre-condition to the victory in the war[2]. If so, it’s a very odious fact but it does suggest that Stalin’s role was essential to winning the war[3], as were the sacrifices of the 20 million or so people who died as a result of his policies.

Beevor on the other hand quotes a general speaking to Stalin early in the war, when Stalin was panicking. I can’t remember exactly the quote, of course, but basically the general told Stalin “It doesn’t really matter how tough they are or how badly we fare now; just pack up our industry to the other side of the Urals, and eventually we’ll destroy them.” A lesson they learnt, of course, from Napoleon, though they did have help from vampires back then.

So reading that article on the reveneration of Stalingrad’s name, and the dispute about how much Stalin needs to be tied to the victory over Nazism (and, by extension, its fascist satellites), or whether the Soviet Union (and Russia) was/is the kind of place where it doesn’t matter who is in charge, no one will ever be able to conquer it. I guess it won’t change anything about the current debate (after all, since when are these debates ever actually about historical facts?) but it’s an interesting question about Stalin’s legacy, since implicit in it is the suggestion that the only way Russia could have defeated the Nazis is by a massive program of industrialization that cannot possibly be achieved without mass suffering. If that’s the case, then it’s hard to believe that the first half of the 20th century could have followed any trajectory that would not have ended in mass suffering – at least not once WW1 was over. And if so, that really is a sad, sad state of human affairs, and points to something cruel and terrible in the heart of modernity.

fn1: it sounds so innocuous when put like that, doesn’t it?

fn2: not to mention the massive contribution of the USA under lend-lease from 1941-1945, something for Americans to throw back in the face of unsympathetic foreigners who tell them they didn’t win the war.

fn3: another side reason that he may have been essential was that Hitler was obssessed with capturing Stalingrad because of its name, and had the city been named Puppygrad he might have been a little less focused on squandering hundreds of thousands of well-trained troops on it.

I want to start this rant with a quote from the British chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander. In discussing a review of the alternatives to the UK’s trident missile program, he announced

We are in a position where the costs of the Successor have to be paid for from within the MoD budget. There is no magic pot of money that is going to be created out of thin air to go on top of that. As a government, we have been very clear about that. Certainly myself and the chancellor. [emphasis mine]

This is an interesting phenomenon. Like most developed nations, the UK maintains a fiat currency system. That is, the government decides by an act of will (by “fiat”) how many pounds are in circulation. There is, quite literally, “a magic pot of money” that can be “created out of thin air.” Yet the current government’s chief of the treasury and its chancellor want to tell us that their is no such option for Britain. Now, it may be that creating money out of thin air carries political risks that they don’t want to bear, and a high-value strategic weapon like Trident is not worth the risk (after all, what ex-imperial power would want to invest lots of money in its military?), but they aren’t telling us this. They’re telling us that the treasury and the government are unwilling to accept the basic tenets of the financial system they are in charge of.

This little moment of magical thinking comes at a time when the Japanese government has announced a plan to do just the opposite – they’re going to spend 4% of GDP on infrastructure investment (aka “bridges to nowhere”) and introduce a huge new program of quantitative easing in order to try and get Japan back to inflation. This has the business pages of the western world in uproar, because the new prime minister (PM), Shinzo Abe, is acting against the economic orthodoxy that brought the UK its triple-dip recession, and which journalists love because their slow minds are very good at talking about “if this economy were a family” and “weaning society off the drug of government debt” but very poor at actually analyzing economic policy in a modern fiat currency. Thus we have Evans-Pritchard giving us a detailed account of how Abe is channelling his granddaddy, and we should all be worried about this (because Japan has a strict non-militarist clause in its constitution …? There are really no dots here to join). We have breathless quotes from ex-members of the Bank of England (which has a sterling record in preventing economic bangs) suggesting

‘When a large country with its own currency reaches its fiscal limit, growth ends not with a bang but a whimper,’’

Is there any sense in which this is even verifiable? What is a “whimper” in economic terms, and when did any country on the planet have its growth end with “a whimper”? Is this something we define through official statistics? Is three quarters of negative growth a whimper? What, for that matter, is a “bang”? Note that the man who coined this fantabulous piece of illusionism was a member of the UK monetary policy advisory committee and, despite that country’s spectacular recent failures, is still quoted as an expert on something (what?) by journalists.
Nothing makes economics journalists slobber more than the chance to deride Japan for its big spending, low baby economy. Thus we have Michael Pascoe essentially repeating Pritchard-evans in a cascade of frothing stupidity as he attempts to describe how terrible deficit spending is, but falling back only on the age-old canard of “Japanese men have small willies”:

Not only is a quarter of the population aged over 65, increasing numbers of Japanese women are deciding they don’t want to marry Japanese men and have their children.

I live in Japan, I know this schtick: it’s called “Charisma man.” Implicit in this kind of language is the suggestion that Japanese men are terrible and Japanese women are looking for something more … fecund. Someone who can rescue them from those terrible Japanese men who just can’t get it up. The sentence is an awkward construction, intended to emphasize that this lack of rogery is an internal problem. It’s also carefully constructed to elide any concept of progress or equality. Good societies breed. Bad societies have women who don’t want to marry. Heaven forfend that modern women might have control of their own fertility, and decide that children aren’t worth the bother.
Arguments about the need for more babies are heavily dependent on the idea that the proportion of government spending is a key measure of risk. Japan, we are told,

already runs on an unsustainable funding model, a level of indebtedness and spending that makes the Greeks and Americans look frugal.

This seems pretty strange to me. Good old unsustainable Japan, 10th most populous country in the world with no natural resources to speak of, 3rd biggest economy in the world, one of the world’s largest aid donors, the world’s major source of manufacturing exports, with many of the biggest manufacturing and service companies, the lowest infant mortality and the longest life expectancy. Also with very low unemployment and very low levels of inequality by any standard you care to measure. Poor, unsustainable Japan. What is it to do?
Never fear, another vapid journalist has a host of suggestions, because he understands “the merits of skepticism.” We are told that “Japan has become a nation that can’t proceed without the economic equivalent of a walker.” Remember, there is no magic pot of money, so any solution which involves government investment must be, by definition, “a walker” – even though almost every country on the planet is dependent on Japan for almost all its heavy manufacturing and high tech needs. There is no multiplier from government spending, not even if you’re a British company buying high speed trains from a country that developed advanced heavy manufacturing on the back of 100 years of industrial policy and targeted deficit spending. Fortunately, our intrepid journalist knows better. Debt is bad, government spending is bad, and Japan can’t sustain more. So we need to consider alternatives, encapsulated in these questions for Abe:

does he have a plan to make Japan more competitive to take on China or halt Sony’s slide toward irrelevance? How about ideas to make the labour force more flexible and international, starting with a new immigration policy? Or a strategy that inspires young Japanese to start new companies or families? What about freer trade? Increasing women’s role in politics and business? Even an energy plan that champions something other than the nuclear reactors Japanese fear amid earthquake risks? None of the above.

So this journalist wants Abe to simultaneously find a way to make Japanese technology competitive against a nation 10 times its size, wants to make it possible for women to enter the workforce and start families, wants more immigration to a nation with one of the most challenging language contexts in the developed world, and wants to dismantle nuclear energy policy – without spending a yen of government money. How is this going to happen?

The last time this idiot journalist traveled on a shinkansen, did he consider the effects of eliminating the government spending that made the train possible, while simultaneously dismantling the nuclear power system that propels it?
I think he didn’t. He also didn’t think about the actual barriers to immigration policy in Japan (most especially, the fact that Japanese don’t speak English) or the barriers to workplace flexibility. Japan maintains an excellent system of public maternity leave. Good luck getting your employer to give you the time off to use it – but this is the government’s fault, right?
Here we see a classic symptom of the modern commentator on Japan. Wherever Japanese government has achieved success, we hear economics pundits and journalists screaming about government incompetence. But wherever the truth might lie in the overwhelming power of Japanese corporations and business elites to determine policy, we hear a sudden silence about the role of government in weakening those forces. Anyone who has worked in Japan knows that the single biggest force influencing people’s decision to delay childbearing is the difficulty of finding family friendly work. This is a classic situation where government intervention and public spending can make a difference – but no commentator will consider those options. And so we have a strange situation where massive government spending has made Japan one of the most successful economies on the globe (without natural resources), but modern lack of growth is taken as a sign of the complete failure of government spending to make Japan better; while the private forces that dominate ordinary Japanese people’s lives are completely ignored.
The truth is that, while Japan has massive government spending and is one of the most equal societies in the OECD (with all the benefits for social cohesion that this brings), it is also one of the most schizophrenically neo-liberal economies in the OECD. Japan has limited workers rights, limited licensing laws or restrictions on the entertainment economy, businesses are self-regulating to an extreme degree (see e.g. TEPCO), university education is almost entirely fee-based, there is very little social welfare for the unemployed, and many utilities and services are essentially privatized. Yet when I read neo-liberals commentating on Japan I never read anything about how the Japanese economic model might present an example of a neo-liberal pathway to equality and happiness. Instead we have unsustainable spending, women who won’t breed (with dubious hints that they are waiting for a white man to show them what it’s all about) and the dead hand of government. Why can’t market commentators move beyond their fixation on Japanese government spending and start looking at the Japanese economic and social system as a whole? I don’t think I’ve ever read a discussion of Japan’s declining birthrate in the mainstream press that discusses the role of workplace culture in preventing child-rearing decisions. Ever. I’ve never read a discussion of Japanese government spending that mentions the bullet train, although it’s implicit in much of the discussion of Japan’s past. Every failure of the Japanese economy is slated home to the government, but all its successes – born on the back of a conscious industrial policy and a massive program of public spending spread over 40 years – are just good luck and corporate endeavour.
So my challenge to neo-liberals is: put your money where your mouth is. Admit that Japan’s laissez faire labour market practices are the real reason for its declining birthrate, admit that government spending worked to make Japan great, and then move on to construct a narrative in which Japan’s neo-liberal market elements and laissez-faire social order created, or helped create, equality and wealth. Spin me a story – how does this work? Is your knowledge of Japan and your ability to analyze economic systems more than skin deep? Or is the extent of your analytical ability “government spending bad, Japan proof?” Are you an economic commentator, or a neo-liberal parrot? Surprise me!

 

Hey, just what you see, pal!

Hey, just what you see, pal!

With the sad events recently in America, and president Obama’s newfound (apparent) determination to do something about assault weapons, a lot of attention has focused on Australia’s National Firearms Agreement (NFA), which outlawed certain categories of guns and included a program to buy back guns already in circulation (commonly called the “gun buyback program”). Several studies have been conducted in the aftermath of the agreement, and these seem to have found that it was associated with a reduction in suicides and possibly homicides, with some evidence that the widely expected substitution in suicide methods didn’t offset the gains. The suicide gains appear to be quite large. I think the definitive paper is probably that by Simon Chapman and colleagues, which can be read free online (I think) through pubmed and gives some impressive charts showing declines in gun-related mortality. It is obvious from those charts though that homicide rates were declining anyway, so the results on homicide are weak. Leigh and Neill published a state-by-state analysis of similar trends, with details on the magnitude of the buyback program in each state, and also found tentative evidence in support of the law’s effects on homicides and suicides. However, there is a side debate about whether the law had an effect on mass killings, these events having been the spur for the law in the first place and also the primary focus of any gun laws that Obama will introduce.

The figures for mass killings are fairly impressive: Australia had 12 between 1980 and 1996, but has had zero since. New Zealand had 3 between 1980 and 1996, and had 1 since (in 1997). The USA has a continuing rate of mass killings, and these comparisons are suggestive of an effect of the law. Here I will argue that we need to wait another 10 years before we can make any statement about the effectiveness of the laws in this regard, and probably another 20 years before we can rule out the possibility that the sudden cessation of mass killings was due to other reasons. I will be basing a lot of this analysis on a dubious paper by McPhedran and Baker in the Justice Policy Journal, which contains the data on mass killings for the two countries.

Methods

Data on all mass shootings in New Zealand (NZ) and Australia were collected from the McPhedran and Baker paper for the period 1980-2012. In this paper a mass shooting was defined as an event where at least 4 people were killed by gunshots, not including the perpetrator. McPhedran and Baker give the number of mass shootings and the total death toll for each country. The study period was divided into pre-NFA (1980-1996) and post-NFA (1997-2012) periods. For the pre-NFA period the number of mass shootings was turned into a rate per unit of NZ population per year, on the assumption that although populations changed over time during the study period, the ratio of Australia’s to NZ’s population remained roughly static at approximately five times. Practically, this means that the number of mass shootings in NZ was divided by the length of the pre-NFA period (16 years) to get an annual rate of shootings, while the the number of mass shootings in Australia was divided by five times the length of the period to get its rate. This enables a sloppy, back-of-the-envelope calculation without fiddling with tricky population changes[1].

Once the rates had been calculated for the pre-NFA period, the probability that the observed number of shootings would be seen in the post-NFA period was calculated, on the assumption that mass shootings follow a poisson distribution and that the rate of shootings was not affected by the NFA. If the probability of observing the given number of shootings in Australia in the post-NFA period was less than 5%, we conclude that the NFA was effective; if the probability of observing the given number of shootings in NZ in the post-NFA period was less than 5%, we conclude that some other cultural change was occurring to drive down rates of mass shootings.

Finally, if the probability of observing the given number of shootings was greater than 5%, the additional number of years required to get the probability below 5% was calculated for both countries. Dubious conclusions were drawn on the basis of this[2].

Results

There were 12 shootings in Australia in the pre-NFA period, with 96 deaths, and 0 in the post-NFA period. There were 3 shootings in the pre-NFA period in NZ, with 24 deaths, and 1 in the post-NFA period with 5 deaths. Using the bodgy standardization method, we would expect to observe 15 mass shootings causing 120 deaths in Australia in the pre-NFA period if it had the same mass shooting rate as NZ, which suggests that shootings were less prevalent in Australia before 1996.

The rate of mass shootings per unit of NZ population per year in the pre-NFA period were 0.19 in NZ and 0.15 in Australia. Under the assumption that mass shootings are Poisson distributed, if these rates were to continue in the 15 year post-NFA period, there would be a 22% probability of observing only 1 or 0 mass shootings in NZ, and an 11% probability of observing 0 mass shootings in Australia. That is, we cannot say that the large reduction in the number of shootings post-NFA was statistically significant in Australia.

In fact, in order to conclude that the NFA had a significant effect on mass shootings, we would need to observe no mass shootings in Australia between 1997 and 2017. Conversely, if there are no mass shootings in NZ between now and 2023, we can conclude that a cultural change occurred in NZ that led to a reduction in mass shootings. So really, we have to wait until 2023 before we can draw any statistical conclusions about the effect of the NFA on the rate of mass shootings, unless we are willing to argue that New Zealanders are so radically different to Australians that they are not an appropriate control group for such a comparison.

Conclusion

It is not possible to conclude at this stage that the National Firearms Agreement reduced the rate of mass shootings, and we will need a much larger period of study before we can. Note that were we to approach this problem in 2017, when we had sufficient post-NFA data, we would also be best advised to extend the pre-NFA study period to 20 years, and this would likely reduce the rate of shootings in Australia (I think the 90s were a high water mark for this), which would again mean that we would likely again find no effect. It’s a bit of a hare and tortoise thing, this.

This study has limitations. Its primary limitation is that it is extremely bodgy. Secondary limitations include its having bought into the dubious framing of the McPhedran and Baker paper, its lack of attention to mortality, and the fact that it used a Poisson rather than a negative binomial distributional assumption – I think the results would be even less conclusive if a negative binomial distribution were used but I don’t now that much about those distributions, so can’t comment.

As a final note, it’s my impression that the NFA is well liked in Australia, easy to implement, cheap, and apparently effective in reducing suicides and homicides, possibly meaning it was more effective than originally intended. This law was implemented very quickly by a new and quite inexperienced prime minister, in a pressure cooker public environment and often against the interests of a constituency that was naturally inclined to vote for him. I think this is a testament to the policy-making skills of Australia’s bureaucracy at the time, and also to Howard’s political skill in that period. This exactly the kind of situation in which bad legislation will be drawn up, but he seems to have done a good job. I think it would be really fascinating if he and a few of his advisors and bureaucrats of that era were to get together and write a perspective piece for a major medical journal, describing the pressures they faced and how they managed to produce the legislation given the public and policy challenges they faced. I think it would get into the BMJ – they should do it! Whether the legislation was implemented as a cynical popularity boost by Howard, or for genuine public policy purposes, the results have been surprising and I think it would be interesting to see how such a beneficial law can be developed and implemented in such an environment.

It’s also worth remembering that the previous government under Bob Hawke faced a similar challenge with HIV/AIDS in 1984, and responded similarly effectively. This suggests that in health and law enforcement, Australia’s policy development framework is robust, effective and well liked by the population independent of the political leanings of the party in power. Let’s hope it stays that way long beyond the post-NFA period!

fn1: opinions are easy to have, and one shouldn’t have to work too hard to arrive at them.

fn2: For those tempted to try this at home, this is definitely not how the experimental method works. It’s a thought[3] experiment!

fn3: Obviously I’m using this term quite loosely.

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…

Introduction

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).

Methods

(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.

Results

(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

Variable

Loadings

Factor 1

Factor 2

Factor 3

Factor 4

Factor 5

FMUnresBest

0.67

 

 

 

0.37

FMNotEvQual

0.24

0.10

 

 

 

FMLimitSocial

0.54

 

-0.13

 

0.19

FMMoreImp

0.68

 

 

 

0.34

FMThreatEnv

0.74

 

-0.11

 

0.42

FMUnsustain

0.74

 

-0.10

 

0.39

CO2TempUp

-0.86

 

0.21

 

0.14

CO2AtmosUp

-0.92

 

0.16

 

0.14

CO2WillNegChange

-0.93

 

0.11

 

 

CO2HasNegChange

-0.87

 

 

 

 

CFCNowOK

0.41

 

 

 

 

AcidRainNowOK

0.49

 

 

 

 

CYNewWorldOrder

0.35

0.51

-0.19

 

 

CYSARS

 

0.59

 

0.13

 

CYPearlHarbor

 

0.63

 

 

 

CYAIDS

 

0.64

-0.22

 

 

CYMLK

 

0.73

 

 

 

CYMoon

 

0.42

 

 

 

CYArea51

 

0.53

-0.14

0.67

 

CYJFK

 

0.68

 

 

 

CY911

 

0.73

-0.10

 

 

CYRoswell

 

0.54

-0.13

0.73

 

CYDiana

 

0.65

-0.11

0.14

 

CYOkla

-0.13

0.41

 

 

 

CYClimChange

0.85

0.11

-0.14

 

 

CYCoke

 

0.51

 

 

 

CauseHIV

-0.26

-0.27

0.54

 

 

CauseSmoke

-0.24

-0.18

0.55

 

 

CauseCO2

-0.86

 

0.27

 

0.10

ConsensHIV

-0.12

 

0.55

 

 

ConsensSmoke

 

 

0.55

 

 

ConsensCO2

-0.69

 

0.27

 

0.11

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.

Conclusion

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.

Update

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.

What cute little blue feet this boob has!

This week sees the simultaneous release of pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts, and the release of a Counterpunch article on how a feminist Assistant Professor should be allowed  to breastfeed in class. I think everyone is roughly aware of how the debate is proceeding vis a vis the Duchess’s breasts – they’re a private and sensitive part of her body and should not be revealed in public. A nice debate on the Assistant Professor’s breastfeeding can be found at Crooked Timber, and in my opinion shows the lengths people will go to defend people in their in-group, and I commented there a few times to make note of the nature of the Prof’s bullying of a younger woman, and how strange it is for a self-described “militant feminist” to be using the full powers of authority against a young woman.

There’s an interesting and entertaining element to the feminist response to these two topics, though, which I would like to explore here. The palace’s (and, presumably, Kate’s) uproar over the publication of the pictures is only partly based on the fact that she didn’t give permission for a photo to be taken (this happens to royals all the time); it’s specifically about her breasts. I presume there is a feminist response to this based in women’s control of their own bodies, which would observe that breasts are sexual and private parts of the body and to publish pictures of them without permission damages a woman’s agency; but at the same time quite a few commentators on the Crooked Timber thread are arguing that breasts should not be seen as anything special and no one should distinguish between breast-feeding and bottle-feeding in public. Quite a few of the commenters there, presumably feminists, criticize the student journalist and others for suggesting that there might be anything inappropriate about whipping a breast out in a lecture, and suggest that the students who might have been discomfited need to grow up.

But here’s the thing: if Kate Middleton is made uncomfortable by the thought that her breasts can be viewed publicly by strangers, presumably it is also reasonable for her to be discomfited by the sight of a stranger’s breast in public? She might not, but given she sees her own breasts as a private and sexual area of her body she must have some generally applicable boundaries as to when and how they can be displayed, and presumably at least on a personal level these boundaries would be generalizable to the behavior of others. So how do we reconcile her (and many other women’s) feeling that their breasts are special, with a feminist position on breast-feeding that says they aren’t?

I don’t think we can. Because breasts aren’t just bottles, and everyone – male and female – has feelings about them that are not the same as feelings about bottles. This is why feminists will be outraged by the publication of pictures of Kate’s breasts in a way they would not be by pictures of her elbows. So, if you’re going to argue for the right to breast-feed in public places, I don’t think an argument on the basis that “we all need to get over how special breasts are” is going to work unless we are willing to logically extend that to “there’s nothing wrong with publishing unauthorized pictures of the breasts of public figures.” Julia Gillard, Margaret Thatcher, Kate Middleton, Paris Hilton: it’s all the same, we can publish their breasts with the same ease with which we publish their elbows and knees.

Of course, you can paper over the issue by objecting to the publication of any unauthorized photos of public figures, but that horse has bolted. The issue now is strictly over what is acceptable. Upskirts? No, those parts are sexual. Breasts? No, those parts are private. Breast-feeding by a professor in class? Yes, because there’s nothing special about breasts. Doesn’t work does it? Similarly sneering at someone for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts in a breast-feeding role in class, but lauding them for being made uncomfortable by a strange woman’s breasts on a newspaper … doesn’t work. And this latter contradiction applies even if the person in question is well capable of understanding the non-sexual context of breastfeeding.

I think there are lots of other ways to justify the Professor’s decision to breastfeed in class, and lots of other arguments for public breastfeeding. But I don’t think they should be leavened with “they’re just breasts.” It’s a lactivist meme that I think contains a lack of respect for the importance of sexuality, contains an unhealthy natalist view of what women become when they are mothers (i.e. non-sexual) and reduces an important part of human culture (the aesthetics of the body) to a mere triviality.

For the record: I am entirely in favour of women being allowed to breastfeed publicly, but I also think it’s good for women to consider whether they can find alternatives, and society should (as happens in Japan) provide proper rooms for this activity, so that women can breastfeed comfortably without worrying about being in public, and those members of the public who are uncomfortable with public breastation are not required to see it. Worse still, a society where it is expected that women can, should and will breastfeed in public is going to be hell for women who feel uncomfortable so doing: they will be unable to find spaces to do so, and will be made to feel like bad mothers for not behaving in accordance with accepted fashion. So more breast-feeding rooms are always good. Incidnetally, my view used to be more militantly lactivist, but the reserved nature of life in Japan has mellowed it slightly.

 

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.

In briefly surfing through the Paizo messageboards I stumbled upon this highly contentious doozy of a thread: Is torturing intelligent undead an evil action? The resulting thread is a microcosm of the murky debates that surround good and evil in a game that recreates a moral universe radically different from our own, but my position falls on the side of the anti-religionists everywhere: Paladins, while good in the framework of the game, are your classic evil bastard when viewed through the prism of modern morality. One commenter sums up the perverted morality of the Paladin quite nicely on the first page:

It’s also hypocrisy like that, that causes no one to feel bad at all when a Paladin bites the dust

Yep, count me in with that position.

Of course, in a world of intelligent undead and actually evil gods, the Paladin’s vengeful “goodness” suddenly makes perfect sense. We should all say a prayer of thanks to the Flying Spaghetti Monster every morning we wake up and find ourselves not in that world.

From a DMing perspective though,the thread raises one interesting question: how to handle players who lie during torture. The OP claims that

The party melee unceremoniously decapitated the magus the same way they had his vampiric predecessor. (The players lied and said they would spare him if he sold his master out)

I hate it when players do this, because you have to act your way through a situation where they get the information and don’t have to worry about a prisoner or potentially vengeful future enemy. Also, realistically it’s the only way you can trust the information you receive from torture: if a prisoner knows they’re going to die they’ll just fess up any old shit as quickly as possible to avoid another round of burnt-poker-rogerings. When players then do the coup-de-grace anyway, it’s like a cheap exit clause for them with no penalty.

So I came up with a new rule that I carry across all campaigns: players can use the old “promise them their freedom if they tell the truth but then kill them anyway” routine, but if they do it repeatedly they’ll get a kind of nasty light in their eyes that every enemy will recognize: the “I don’t really mean these platitudes I’m telling you” light. Once this light gets in their eyes, torture becomes permanently useless. I tell my players this early on, and from then on they only use this technique very sparingly, when they’re in desperate straits (i.e. really can’t risk letting the guy go) or the torturee is really so evil that slaughtering them is a favour to the universe, and lying to them beforehand just the icing on the cake.

This rule, I have found, makes players much more willing to find alternatives to torture when they deal with low level minions, and much more aware that every person they let go may be a knife in their back later, or an evil they haven’t slain. It also makes torture and taking prisoners a much more complex undertaking.

But in either case, I don’t think I’ve ever run a campaign world where undead can be tortured. Except maybe vampires. The rest of them will just laugh it off and sneer at the players as they refuse to blab. If you want to find their secrets, you have to dig a little more carefully than severing a few digits and casting a few cure light wounds. They’re liches, not mercenaries with a skin problem!

Life Expectancy and Wealth in the UK, 2004

I’m doing some research work at the moment on a certain country, and have identified a negative relationship between inequality (measured using the Gini index) and all-cause mortality. I’m not at liberty to identify the country, or the details, of course. This negative relationship means, in essence, that the more unequal a small area becomes, the lower the death rate in that area. The effect is very very weak, so essentially can be dismissed as a policy concern (other aspects of the area’s economy drive much greater increases or reductions in mortality).

Typically, when a result like this occurs, people will dismiss it as either a statistical oddity or will say that the inequality effect is operating as a proxy for other phenomena – for example, the observed values of inequality measure the effect of past rapid economic growth, or are a proxy for some other aspect of the economy or society (social capital, corruption, etc.). The reason for this is simple: it’s very hard to construct a mechanism by which increasing inequality can reduce mortality, but it’s easy to say that inequality increases as wealth does, and that increasing wealth reduces mortality (a fairly solid fact). There is a model for how inequality can increase mortality, through mechanisms such as reduced social welfare support, or inability to seize necessary cultural or physical capital – there are quite a few convoluted mechanisms proposed by which relative inequality can have this effect in wealthy countries like the UK.

I’m a realist in this regard, and I don’t think relative inequality is important to health – I think it’s absolute inequality that determines health, in the vast majority of cases – thus in the short term development is more important than equality (or, in many cases, basic rights – see e.g. China). But this data I’m playing with measures relative inequality – that is, it measures the distribution of wealth, and looks at the relationship between this distribution and mortality after adjusting for absolute wealth (how rich an area is).

So, here’s a challenge to my reader(s): can you propose a social mechanism by which increased relative inequality reduces mortality? This mechanism needs to work across regions with a diverse range of income levels and other forms of social determinants of health. Imagine it in your own country, if you like: whether you’re living in Sao Paulo or on the edge of the Amazon, greater disparity in wealth will reduce mortality. Can you explain how this happens without falling back on arguments that a) the measure of inequality is a proxy for something else or b) higher absolute wealth generates higher relative inequality.

Have at it, if you dare!