Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Monday, August 31, 2015

Why Johnny can't understand climate: functional illiteracy and the rise of "unpropaganda"


Image from OECD Skills Outlook 2013. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264204256-en. These data show that most people in OECD countries have very limited capabilities of managing contrasting information. This lack of skill is the source of traditional propaganda (presenting to people a single side of the issue) but also of the rise of "unpropaganda;" that is, presenting to people so much contrasting information that they can't arrive to a firm conclusion. The result is uncertainty and inaction. Unpropaganda has been used with great effect on the issue of climate change. 



The "official" story that you normally find about "literacy" is that people all over the world are becoming more and more literate, that is, more and more able to read and write. Yet, there is another side to literacy: it is the concept termed, "literacy proficiency" that classifies people according to their ability to understand what they read.

A recent survey on this point has been published by OCSE. It is a massive document of 460+ pages that examines the abilities of understanding and processing text by citizens of OCSE countries. The result is a subdivision in 5 "literacy levels," as you see in the figure at the beginning of this post. You can find the exact definition of these levels on page 64 of the document, but, summarizing, the lowest levels, below 1, 1, and 2, are relative to people able to arrive only at the simplest levels of understanding of a text. Even at level 3, one may be able to perform inferences based on the text being read, but the texts are said to contain "no conflicting information". Only at levels 4 and 5, some capability of critically discerning data from competing information is required.

As usual, whatever you read on the Web should be evaluated with plenty of caution. What is the reliability of these data? Why five levels and not more, or less? What do these results mean? Digesting the long OECD report is not an easy task, but I think that, first of all, we can say what this classification is not: those who don't reach the highest levels are not necessarily stupid. For instance, my gypsy friends would fare very badly on the test, since most of them are really illiterate, not just functionally. But I can assure you that they are extremely smart, just of a different kind of smartness.

Then, the gist of the OECD paper is not rocket science: the tests just measure people's ability to process written text and extract its meaning And if you are classed at, say, level 2, it means that you failed the tests for level 3, for instance showing that you are able to "construct meaning across larger chunks of text". And if you are classed level 3, it means you failed the tests for level 4, for instance to identify and define "competing information". In short, it seems that, everywhere in the OECD countries, most people (typically more than 90% of the population) are not able to critically evaluate contrasting information.

The OECD report doesn't use the term "functionally illiterate", but it seems that it is normally used to describe levels 1 and 2; that is, people not skilled enough to be able to cope in full with the present complex society. It is a shocking result: nearly 50% of the population of the "rich" OECD countries are in this condition (*). Even if you limit the definition of functional illiteracy to level 1, it is still a large fraction of the population, probably much larger than most of us would have thought.

Are these results applicable to all forms of communication, including, for instance, what people hear on TV? This is not discussed in the OECD report, but I think it is hard to escape the conclusion that, yes, there shouldn't be a large difference. The data refer to people can read, and if some of them score so poorly despite being able to understand written words, why should they score differently when confronted with spoken words? Then, once you have seen these results, much of the ongoing political antics suddenly acquire a new significance. Some politicians, it seems, have attained success by tailoring their message to levels easily understandable by the large fraction of "functionally illiterate" people in their countries. Mr. Berlusconi, in Italy, is a good example; nowadays Mr. Trump seems to be using the same tactics in the US. This way of communicating is the essence of what we call "propaganda" (nowadays "public relations" or "consensus building"). It consists in presenting only one side of each issue, conveniently packaged in simple slogans: no subtleties whatsoever. It works: most people won't, normally, seek for, or consider, contrasting information.

And now let's go to the question I wanted to examine in this post: what is the relevance of the literacy proficiency data on the climate change issue? As we all know, climate change is an extremely complex subject that requires years of study to be understood in its details. However, the climate change issue can be summarized to a simple statement that says: "if we keep burning fossil fuels, we will face a major disaster". It is the same kind of statement that says, "If you keep smoking, your risk lung cancer". And to understand that, you don't need to be an expert in epidemiology. Most issues can be presented in ways which can be understood by people at all the levels of the literacy scale who, as I said, are not stupid and perfectly know what's bad and what's good for them.

The problem with the literacy scale is another one: it has to do with the debate on climate change. Here, we see the development of a communication technology that exploits the lack of functional literacy of a large fraction of the public. We may call this technology "unpropaganda." Traditional propaganda (literally, "what is to be propagated") aims at passing a message by eliminating or hiding all contrasting information. Unpropaganda, instead, aims at stopping a message from propagating by presenting a lot of contrasting information to a public unable to fully evaluate it.

Unpropaganda works, and it works wonders. The OECD data show that no more than about 5% of the population in most OECD countries can extricate themselves out of a complex debate involving a lot of contrasting information. Now, look at the "debate" on climate science and you see that the idea of presenting "both sides" of the issue is far from meaning a balanced information. It is a strategy to confuse the public. It is not so expensive; well within the reach of the lobbies that would lose money from serious action against climate change. And it is incredibly effective. Look at the Gallup polls: note how the public is confused, easily swayed by irrelevant information ("climategate") or by false information ("the pause").

So, how do we fight climate unpropaganda? For one thing, don't expect that governments will work at cultivating people's ability of reasoning. I may be a conspirationist, but I guess that most governments are perfectly happy if their citizens are not so greatly skilled in evaluating information (despite all the talk in the OCSE report on the need of more skilled citizens). Then, there is little that can be done to change a situation that has evolved over several decades of mass media development. Unpropaganda is cheap and it works very well; it will stay with us for quite a while.

Yet, understanding how unpropaganda works is a major step forward. For one thing, it is a further nail in the coffin of the so called "information deficit" model, that is the idea that if we explain to the public how things stand with climate change, they will understand and will do something about it. It doesn't work: the public does not lack information, they have too much of it! They are simply unable to make their minds. There follows that we should concentrate on producing high quality information, recognizable as such. It doesn't mean that we should retreat behind the paywall of scientific journals, but that we shouldn't engage in that kind of low level debate typical of troll-infested blog comments. In other words, we shouldn't run after deniers, trying to demonstrate that they are in error. That only generates confusion.

Then, note how the denial side has been reacting so rabidly to the finding that 97% of the working climate scientists agree with the idea that climate change exists and it is mainly human caused. The 97% meme, indeed destroys the very basis of their unpropaganda strategy. It shows that there is a broad consensus among scientists about the issue. That's something that people at all literacy levels can correctly perceive. And, let me repeat it once more, no matter what their literacy level is, most people are NOT stupid. If a doctor you trust tells you to quit smoking; you may not be an epidemiologist, but you know that you'd better quit. If 97% of the world's climate scientists (and the Pope, too) say that we should quit burning fossil fuels, then you may not be a climate scientist, but you know we'd better do something about that. So, that's another point on which to concentrate our efforts.

Not easy, I understand, but, as Sun Tzu said, if you know your enemy and you know thyself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.




(*) It is some kind of a mystery why Italy, the country that once produced Dante Alighieri, fares so badly in the literacy list. On the other hand, after seeing these data, you are not surprised any more that Italy is the country that produced Berlusconi.




Thursday, August 27, 2015

Rossi's E-cat: the slow death of a meme


Results of a search using Google "Trends." The E-Cat is dead, but it keeps bouncing; a little. 



News about the E-Cat, the (in)famous desktop nuclear fusion reactor: Mr. Andrea Rossi, the inventor, has announced that he finally succeeded in obtaining a patent for his device and that it will be soon commercialized as a home water heater.

After four years of similar claims by Rossi, all regularly unfulfilled, it is not interesting to discuss this new one except, maybe, to note that, in the patent, the famed "nuclear reactor" has now become just a chemical reactor, hence contradicting all of Rossi's previous claims. But, at the same time, in one of Rossi's sites (as described here), it is still claimed that a nuclear reaction takes place, but not anymore the one that once was described, involving nickel and hydrogen. Truly, Rossi seems to aim at the world Guinness record for the number of times a person can contradict his/her own public statements.

So, from a scientific viewpoint, this story is a dead cat, but it is still interesting in terms of describing the trajectory of a meme. For those of you who don't know what a meme is, let me say that it is a self-replicating unit of information existing in the human knowledge space, a subject studied by a science called "memetics". As you can see in the figure at the beginning, the "E-cat" meme has had a typical viral trajectory, literally exploding in 2011. Then, it peaked and started a slow decline, that is still ongoing. It is a very general behavior of Internet memes, for instance the recent story of "Cecil the Lion" is following the same trajectory.

Some of the "bumps" that you see in the curve, above, are the results of Rossi attempting to revitalize his idea by means of new, flamboyant statements, of which the latest one is about the patent. It is likely that this new claim will result in a further, small bump, that then will subside. Apparently, memes have this "natural" trajectory, that resists most attempts of modification.

So, the story of the E-Cat raises an interesting series of questions: why do memes behave in this way? What determines the intensity and the duration of their penetration in cyberspace? How can these parameters be modified? It is a truly fascinating subject which has to do with the way human beings exchange ideas and define common beliefs. And from this story I am starting to understand a basic point that has to do with our current plea: we are doing everything wrong by searching for a technological miracle.

Many people were so eager to follow Rossi's unfounded claims (a few still are) because they genuinely thought that we need a new energy source in order to solve our problems. Well, I think not. We don't need new gadgets, we need something much more fundamental: we need cooperation. That is, we need to work together to manage the planetary commons (that the Pope calls the "Creation", it is the same concept). And management is not the same as exploitation: it means caring for the commons. If we don't get to do that, no technological wonder will ever do more than worsen our problems. Think of climate change: there is no reasonable kind of gadgetry that can reverse the damage we are doing to our own ecosystem, as long as we keep doing it. What we need, first of all, is an agreement to stop destroying the ecosystem. But how can we arrive to such an agreement? Well, it may be largely a question of memetics. So, the E-cat, though mostly a loss of time for everyone, may turn out to be useful, in the end, for learning something new.  



To learn more about memetics and its application in the fight against climate change, you can start from this post by Joe Brewer







Monday, August 24, 2015

The Limits to Growth in the Soviet Union and in Russia: the story of a failure




Above, you can see the full recording of a 2012 lecture given in Moscow by Dennis Meadows; one of the authors of "The Limits to Growth" report of 1972. It is long, more than an hour, but - if you don't have the time to watch all of it - I suggest that you go to minute 21 and watch Dennis Meadows showing this book.



It is titled "Soviet Union and Russia in the global system." According to Meadows, in the 1980s, Viktor Gelovani, first author of the book, adapted to the Soviet Union the world model used for "The Limits to Growth" and he ran it; finding that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. Then, Meadows says "he went to the leadership of the country and he said, 'my forecast shows that you don't have any possibility. You have to change your policies.' And the leader said, 'no, we have another possibility: you can change your forecast'"

Meadows' anecdote is basically confirmed by Rindzevičiūtė, who wrote an excellent article that tells the whole story. It turns out that it is not true that "The Limits to Growth" was ignored in the Soviet Union, as it could be the impression from the documents available in the West. The "Limits" study was translated into Russian, although it was distributed only to very limited circles (generating, by the way, a brisk black market, as Rindzeviciute describes at p. 6). Several Soviet scientists knew very well the study, they had contacts with its authors and a number of them made a considerable effort to warn the Union's leadership that the system was going to collapse. They didn't have much success, as Meadows says in his talk.

Theoretically, you could think that the Soviet leaders could have seen "The Limits to Growth" as a useful planning tool. In principle, they had ways to put into practice the recommendations obtainable from the models in order to avoid collapse. But that wasn't the case. The reaction of the Soviet leadership was the same as it was in the West. Both the Soviet and the Western leaders were completely tied to the concept of "growth at all costs" and refractory to changes. So, the warning was ignored on both sides of the iron curtain.

Another, hugely interesting element of this story is how it shows that the Soviet Collapse was a systemic one; it was caused by the huge military and bureaucratic expenses that the production sector of the economy was becoming unable to bear. In other words, it seems clear that it wasn't caused by Mishka Mecheny, (Gorbachev the madman) or by an evil plot of the Western secret services (although both may have played a role). On the whole, we have here a remarkable confirmation of the predictive power of world modeling: in the 1980s, it succeeded in predicting the collapse of a large chunk of the world's economy. Another, even larger, chunk is collapsing right now.

One more interesting point comes from examining whether the present Russian leadership learned something from the experience of the old Soviet Union. Apparently not; because today there doesn't seem to exist a serious debate on mineral depletion in Russia. Most Russians seem to be convinced that their mineral resources are abundant and that they can tap them at will for the foreseeable future. Hence, depletion is not a problem they should be worried about.

Meadows' talk confirms this impression. Even without paying attention to what Meadows says, do look at the faces and the body postures of the young people in the audience - they are occasionally shown in the movie. I can tell you that, over the years I have developed a certain degree of telepathic capabilities in understanding the feelings of my audience. And I can tell you that most of the students listening to Meadows completely disbelieve him - or so it seems to me (also a Russian friend of mine said that this was "the most boring talk she had ever heard"). Note also the silly and marginal questions the students asked Meadows at the end of the talk. He told them about the upcoming end of the world and they ask him if it is convenient to invest in water producing companies... Come on!

But the lack of understanding about the limits to growth in Russia is really nothing special. It is the rule all over the world. In addition, Russia, right now, is in full emergency mode and the main priority for the Russians is to save their economy from external attacks. They can't be blamed if they don't have (and, possibly, they don't need), the group of Cassandras we have in the West, white haired people who keep telling of dark and dire things to come and whom no one listens to.

With or without Cassandras, the situation in Russia may not be so bad. Dmitry Orlov has described  how the Soviet economy was much better suited than the Western market economy to adapt and survive to the kind of systemic collapse described by "The Limits to Growth." The same considerations may apply to the present Russian system. So, the future is, as always opaque, but, if you ask me which will be the next economy to collapse, I wouldn't bet it will be Russia.



h/t Michael Hebenstreit and Tatiana Yugay. 



Saturday, August 22, 2015

Fiorina: the next line of defense of climate denialism





The recent Republican entrant to the US presidential race gave an interview on Yahoo where she spoke about several issues, including climate change. It is an extremely interesting clip to understand what we could call a "moderate" position in the Republican field. Ms. Fiorina's statements on climate change are in this clip and are summarized in text form on Vox, with the title "everything she said was wrong." I think it is worse than that.

Ms. Fiorina is expressing what may well be the next line of defense of climate denialism. She does not flatly deny climate change, as many of her colleagues do, even though she states that it is a minor problem in comparison to others, such as terrorism. But, yes, she admits that it is a problem. So, what should be done about it? Here, Ms. Fiorina puts forward a series of lies and half truths to push for the idea that we wouldn't/shouldn't/can't/ do anything except hoping to be saved by some uspecified "innovations". Why? Because, you know, coal is too important for us, and even if we fight it, China won't. And, without coal, the economy can't work; don't you see how many jobs are being lost because of these silly environmental regulations? It is much better to work at making coal cleaner, isn't it? Besides, renewables don't work because, you know, wind turbines kill birds, they are ugly, and solar plants need a lot of water, etc...

I think that with this interview we have a glimpse of the future of the debate on climate change. As the evidence becomes undeniable, deniers will shift back to admitting that, yes, it exists and even that it may be human caused. But they will propose to do nothing about it because it is impossible/too expensive/will cause jobs to be lost, etc....  And we'll be back to square one: we'll keep doing nothing, for one reason or another.

So, the fight is still long and hard. And I am afraid that if we don't change our strategy, we are not going to win it.





Friday, August 21, 2015

My career as a Putinologist nipped in the bud




What kind of alien creatures are infesting my blog?


How many Russians read this blog? From the data I have from Google Analytics, I thought they were many; by far the largest fraction of readers from non-English speaking countries. So many that I published the data and asked for comments from my Russian readers.

The comments I received from Russia were very few. I reasoned that maybe most Russians following the blog could read English, but had trouble in expressing themselves in English; and that sounded plausible. Then, I noticed something strange: my blog in Italian (Effetto Risorse) also had a large readership from Russia; again, according to Google Analytics. Now, I know that many Russians speak good English, but Italian? Something just didn't click together the way it should have.

I was scratching my head while thinking about this story when I got a message from Allan Stromfeld Christensen (of "From Filmers to Farmers") who asked me, "are you sure that all those visits are from real people?" And he went on to tell me that he had noticed a lot of visits from China to his blog, but that these visits had turned out to be just web bots.

So, I went to check my site with a different analytical tool, "Statcounter" that I had installed but wasn't using so much. Statcounter claims to detect "actual human activity" and, indeed, the data it reports put the number of visits from Russia way down in the list; no more than about 1% or less of the total. My site is infested with Russian bots, and that's it. (or, at least, it looks like the most reasonable interpretation of the data)

You can imagine that it was a very disappointing discovery for a Russophile, as I am. But so is life, and you live to learn. After all, 1% of visits from Russia is still better than 0% visits from Russia. But my career as a Putinologist is ruined!

But the whole story is worrisome. Russian bots, all right, but what else? What are all those bots infesting the Internet? Where do they come from? Even more worrisome, who are you, out there? Are you all bots? Or droids? Or holograms? Or bug eyed monsters? Or little green men? Or what? Is there anyone human reading my blog? Who knows? Mysteries of the Internet.......







Thursday, August 20, 2015

How renewables can beat nuclear



Truly impressive what you can do with Google's "Ngram Viewer"! The graph above doesn't mean that renewables are the perfect energy source, but it surely means that the interest in renewable energy is growing. Actually, it is exploding. And this is a good thing for our future.

Monday, August 17, 2015

The obesity epidemics: another problem we don't know how to solve


A suburban market near Florence, Italy, a few days ago. This market is frequented only by local residents and it provides good evidence that the Italians, on the average, are not so fat. Most people you see walking there are in reasonably good shape and I tried hard to find someone truly obese, but I didn't see a single one.  It turns out that, indeed, Italy is less affected by obesity than most (although not all) countries of the Western World. But things are rapidly changing; Mediterranean diet notwithstanding, even in Italy people are more and more gaining weight and becoming obese. The obesity epidemic seems to be another one of those problems that keep getting worse and that we just don't know how to solve. 



We all know that the world suffers an obesity epidemic, hitting in particular the rich countries of the West. But what exactly makes people fat? You could say that it is because they eat too much and exercise too little and that would be, obviously, true. But should fat people be demonized because they can't control their appetite? Being overweight, and, in particular, being obese, brings all sorts of health problems; being also told that it is your fault just adds further misery to an already painful condition (*). Yet, this is a common attitude (See DeShazo et. al.). But consider that a whole scientific field has been developed with the specific purpose of creating food so tasty that people can't stop eating it. And we have a whole industry, the food industry, dedicated to making people eat more, and another, the medical industry, trying to make them eat less. A no win situation, if ever there was one.

There is more to say about the damage done by the modern, hypertechnological food industry. Food is not only a question of how many calories it contains, but also of the nutrients it contains. And there is a reason why we often use the term "junk food"; it is because this food contains plenty of calories, but few nutrients (see also this post of mine). So, it may be that people try to compensate for the lack of nutrients by eating more food; another likely reason for the obesity epidemic (see, e.g.  Swinburn et al.). Obese people are actually malnourished (see, e.g. Hyman).

But there may be more to this story if we consider the situation from a "systemic" viewpoint. Human beings are complex systems and complex systems are known to react in a non-linear manner to external forces. So, facing an obese person, if you are thinking in terms of systems, you won't just say "this person eats too much". Rather, you would ask, "what could have unbalanced the metabolic homeostasis of this person?"

To illustrate this point, let me compare the obesity epidemics to climate change (that we could call a "high temperature epidemic"). The Earth's atmosphere is a typical complex system that reacts in a strongly non linear manner to external perturbations (called, usually, "forcings"). The main forcing causing global warming is the increase in the concentration of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2. It is not the only forcing agent, but surely the most important one in unbalancing the atmospheric homeostasis.

Note how all it takes is a small increase in CO2 concentration (little more than a hundred parts per million) to generate a major change in the atmospheric temperatures. It is a point that many people find difficult to understand; not unexpectedly because we are not used to think in systemic terms. But even a small change in the complex atmospheric system can generate a cascade of reinforcing feedbacks that create the disaster we call "climate change." That's the way complex systems work.

Now, could it be that something similar is taking place with the obesity epidemic? Could there be a single agent, or, anyway, a main one, that triggers a cascade of reinforcing metabolic feedbacks that turn normal human beings into land whales?

It can't be excluded, but identifying such a substance, if it exists, is a major - nearly impossible - task. A recent review by Simmons et al. reports a table of 23 putative obesogen substances, chemicals that go from heavy metals to saturated fat, including pesticides, hormones and more. And then the same authors report a table of 38 more possible obesogen additives, but never tested in this sense. A grand total of 61 possible additives that could make you fat; and I am sure that there are many more not listed in the paper.

The sheer number of possible culprits makes one's head spin.  But, in a sense, that can be seen also as promising. What if one of these chemicals plays the role of CO2 in the atmosphere? That is, could one of them be the main trigger of obesity? It would be great if we could point to a specific substance and say: "Look! This is the stuff that makes people obese! Stop putting it into the food we eat!" And, from then on, we would see no more land whales in shopping malls.

Unfortunately, things are not so simple. As I said, the human metabolic system is much more complex than the climate system and, therefore, it is hard to identify such a substance, assuming it exists. The best that can be done is to test the possible obesogens one by one, but what if their effects are reinforced by feedbacks created by their combination? To return to the climate example, by examining the climate system, we could conclude that water vapor is one of the causes of global warming, because it is a greenhouse gas and it is abundant in the atmosphere. But, no, the increase of water vapor concentration is not the cause of global warming, it is an effect of it. We can say that because we know the climate system much better than the human metabolic system.

Then, even if we could identify one or more substances that play a major role in triggering obesity, it may be impossible to remove them from food. Stuff such as heavy metals are just all around us; we have been creating or extracting them over centuries of industrial activity. There is no way to remove them completely from the ecosystem.

And, finally, even if we manage to have scientific proof that a specific substance is the main cause of obesity, we would likely see the food industry gearing up for a major denial campaign. It is easy to imagine politicians stating, "Look, I am not a scientist, but I believe that there is no proof that bis-tetraphenil-dyazin-watchamacallit causes obesity." and then you would hear in the news, "Fatgate: food scientists confess they have faked the obesity data in order to keep their research grants!"  And so on.....

In the end, it seems that the problem with obesity is the same we have with other gigantic problems we face: climate change, the food supply and many others. Often, we are not smart enough to understand what causes them and, even if we do, we are, unfortunately, smart enough that we can stop all attempts to solve them. It seems that we are creating a world so complex that it is becoming impossible for us to manage it.

Let me conclude, however, with a note of optimism (of a sort). Obesity has the advantage over climate change that people can experiment with it by themselves. So, a lot of different diets are being tried, from Vegan to Paleo, and everything in between. With all this experimenting going on, eventually we'll learn something about what makes people fat and how to avoid it. This is, after all, the way the universe manages complex systems: it just discards what doesn't work; it is called natural selection. It would be nice if we could apply the same strategy to climate change; too bad that we have just one planet.




(*) The author of this post has a body mass index (BMI) of 26.2, and that puts him on the lower side of overweight. 

h/t Roberto Rondoni




Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)