Apr 29, 2014

Apr 28, 2014

"Civility," Rhetoric, and Argumentative Tactics

Matt Bruenig has been in a bit of a spat of late with some right-leaning commentators, who took extreme exception to the way he described Megan McArdle's personal life in this post (in quite a similar fashion to others who were enraged when he gave David Brooks and Ezra Klein the same treatment). I don't have anything much to say on the merits of his actual argument (see careful explanations here and here), which I find totally convincing. I think he is completely correct in diagnosing enormous class prejudice throughout the elite media and in his contention that calls for "civility" in these instances are always deployed against people saying rude things about rich, powerful people and never against rich, powerful people saying equally rude (and bogus) things about poor people.

There is perhaps something to say about rhetoric and tactics. Bruenig's profile has reached boost phase in the lefty political sphere because of his extraordinarily sharp analysis, his frankly unmatched ability to cut through decades of political derp to the core of an issue, and his background coming from poverty (which is very, very rare in elite punditry of any stripe), especially the insights thus constructed. He's got this coldly brutal intelligence and style that is equal parts effective and fearsome.

Conservatives, libertarians, and many centrist liberals tend to hate him, though, which isn't so surprising because he tends not to give quarter to the mistaken. And against the class-privileged writers of condescending thinkpieces about the poor, he's absolutely merciless. I don't come from nearly the kind of poverty that he does, but I'm also a lot closer to his background than the average DC journalist, and personally it's hilariously satisfying to watch a skilled analyst dish out these bougie vivisections.

I don't do much of kind of stuff so much anymore, though (well ok, not unless the target is really ripe), for a variety of reasons. First, I'm not nearly as smart as Bruenig, and if you're going to be that confidently aggressive you just can't make dumb mistakes. Second is personality; I'm pretty conflict-averse and don't like heated arguments. Third is also that along the road is that I've made a few conservative friends and I don't want to just bludgeon them and sever that friendship while almost certainly not convincing them of anything.

And fourth, I basically believe in the importance of politics based around logic and argument, despite how much the very concept of "civil" debate is perverted by centrist swine like Lanny Davis. Though it's certainly not anything close to enough to build a political movement, I think it's a way to keep one's own side and mind sharp and free of bullshit derp, as well as an extension of a bit of decency to my fellow human beings, who haven't had the experiences I've had. Whatever, people's priorities can differ on this kind of thing.

The question that I'm not certain Bruenig has completely grappled with is just what he wants to achieve with this kind of writing. The problem with attacking someone's background is that they and all their friends are going to close ranks and raise the psychological barricades. They won't even engage with the substance of your argument, instead they'll blast you with squid-ink BS, attack your background, or just simply refuse to read your stuff on the grounds that you're basically equal to a white supremacist.

Whether that's bothersome or not obviously depends on one's goals. If you just want to make them look like an asshole to your comrades then no problem. But if you want to convince someone they're very badly wrong then in my experience you've got to stick rigorously to the content of their position and scrupulously avoid any comments on their personal life or value as a person. As with mathematics, learning one has a wrong belief is very difficult, and is just about impossible with much self-doubt, anxiety or stress going on. Is that worth doing? Well, I dunno, maybe?

There's also a matter of argumentative power. You could also view sticking very scrupulously to the argument (Rich Yeselson is very good at this) as a source of rhetorical power itself, by not allowing your political opponents the kind of psychological escape routes you might otherwise provide.

There's also a career angle to consider. As Bruenig continues up the ladder there's a decent chance people who've been shanked by him will to mobilize their relationship networks and try to sabotage his career and prevent him from getting more influence. Of course, outright muzzling oneself for the sake of money or status is ethically monstrous. On the other hand, it might be worth setting the value of including among one's major point (McArdle is wrong about poor people) a pretty cutting attack against a person's identity (McArdle was heavily subsidized by her parents and failed at business) against the probable damage it might do to one's future prospects for influencing the course of political events. In this instance I'd say it's justified by any metric you'd care to choose, though I might have toned it down slightly.

Of course, on the other hand, there are countervailing advantages of many kinds to being known as a skilled takedown artist; many have built their careers around it.

Now, maybe I'm wrong and Bruenig has thought through these things very carefully, or perhaps I'm already a sellout DC hack, but in any case I think these questions of power are worth thinking about tactically and strategically, and I think a lot of lefties abandon them for a sort of pointless holier-than-thou purism. (Not Bruenig, to be clear. He's also worked for a union and other activist groups, which is probably worth more than a round ten billion blog posts—certainly more than I've ever done at least. In any case, I've got a longer piece on these issues almost ready for this space that I'll hopefully publish sometime this week.)

He's said before half-jokingly that this whole business is nothing more than infotainment for the upper-middle-class, but that's a tough position to defend in seriousness. Though it probably increases my hack score some more, I think Chris Hayes has navigated these shoals about as well as any lefty could expect, and has achieved some real, positive influence as a result. I also think the difference between the way conservatives react to Steve Randy Waldman and the way they do Bruenig is pretty striking, despite the fact that the two have similar positions on many things.

It is of course preposterously unfair to be talking about the poor, poor hurt feelings of class-privileged media elites who get walloped in the same terms that they constantly deploy against poor people, and many if not most elites are stone hypocrites on this issue. But while I shed no tears for McArdle, I do think it's taking some time to think about rhetorical strategy on occasion. In itself, being right isn't worth much.

Apr 7, 2014

Comparing the 2007 and 2014 IPCC WGII Summaries for Policymakers

This is a question of of tone and confidence. Which report provides a more stark view of the dangers of climate change? (I'm comparing the summaries since that's the only part the vast majority of people will read, and therefore is a good view on what the IPCC Working Group II wanted to emphasize.)

On current effects of climate change:

With regard to changes in snow, ice and frozen ground (including permafrost), there is high confidence that natural systems are affected...
Based on growing evidence, there is high confidence that the following effects on hydrological systems are occurring:

  • increased runoff and earlier spring peak discharge in many glacier- and snow-fed rivers [1.3]; 
  • warming of lakes and rivers in many regions, with effects on thermal structure and water quality

There is very high confidence, based on more evidence from a wider range of species, that recent warming is strongly affecting terrestrial biological systems...
Based on satellite observations since the early 1980s, there is high confidence that there has been a trend in many regions towards earlier ‘greening’ of vegetation in the spring linked to longer thermal growing seasons due to recent warming...
Much more evidence has accumulated over the past five years to indicate that changes in many physical and biological systems are linked to anthropogenic warming...
Effects of temperature increases have been documented in the following (medium confidence):

  • effects on agricultural and forestry management at Northern Hemisphere higher latitudes, such as earlier spring planting of crops, and alterations in disturbance regimes of forests due to fires and pests
  • some aspects of human health, such as heat-related mortality in Europe, infectious disease vectors in some areas, and allergenic pollen in Northern Hemisphere 
  • some human activities in the Arctic...and in lower-elevation alpine areas

Recent climate changes and climate variations are beginning to have effects on many other natural and human systems. However, based on the published literature, the impacts have not yet become established trends. Examples include:

  • Settlements in mountain regions are at enhanced risk of glacier lake outburst floods caused by melting glaciers...
  • In the Sahelian region of Africa, warmer and drier conditions have led to a reduced length of growing season with detrimental effects on crops. In southern Africa, longer dry seasons and more uncertain rainfall are prompting adaptation measures.
  • Sea-level rise and human development are together contributing to losses of coastal wetlands and mangroves and increasing damage from coastal flooding in many areas...

In many regions, changing precipitation or melting snow and ice are altering hydrological systems, affecting water resources in terms of quantity and quality (medium confidence)...
Many terrestrial, freshwater, and marine species have shifted their geographic ranges, seasonal activities, migration patterns, abundances, and species interactions in response to ongoing climate change (high confidence)...
Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence)...
At present the world-wide burden of human ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors and is not well quantified...
Impacts from recent climate-related extremes, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and wildfires, reveal significant vulnerability and exposure of some ecosystems and many human systems to current climate variability (very high confidence)...
Climate-related hazards exacerbate other stressors, often with negative outcomes for livelihoods, especially for people living in poverty (high confidence)...
Violent conflict increases vulnerability to climate change (medium evidence, high agreement)...
The increase in confidence for farm yields and climate-related extremes alone makes the 2014 report significantly more blunt, in my view. Even the way the two are laid out is instructive: the 2007 report's findings are spread out over three pages, while 2014's are all grouped together under bolded headings. At the very minimum, they are at least equally stark.

On future effects of climate change:

These reports are fairly dissimilar, but let me choose the most similar samples I can find.


Five integrative reasons for concern (RFCs) provide a framework for summarizing key risks across sectors and regions. First identified in the IPCC Third Assessment Report, the RFCs illustrate the implications of warming and of adaptation limits for people, economies, and ecosystems. They provide one starting point for evaluating dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. Risks for each RFC, updated based on assessment of the literature and expert judgments, are presented below and in Assessment Box SPM.1 Figure 1. All temperatures below are given as global average temperature change relative to 1986-2005 (“recent”).
(1) Unique and threatened systems: Some unique and threatened systems, including ecosystems and cultures, are already at risk from climate change (high confidence). The number of such systems at risk of severe consequences is higher with additional warming of around 1°C. Many species and systems with limited adaptive capacity are subject to very high risks with additional warming of 2°C, particularly Arctic-sea-ice and coral-reef systems. 
(2) Extreme weather events: Climate-change-related risks from extreme events, such as heat waves, extreme precipitation, and coastal flooding, are already moderate (high confidence) and high with 1°C additional warming (medium confidence). Risks associated with some types of extreme events (e.g., extreme heat) increase further at higher temperatures (high confidence). 
(3) Distribution of impacts: Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development. Risks are already moderate because of regionally differentiated climate-change impacts on crop production in particular (medium to high confidence). Based on projected decreases in regional crop yields and water availability, risks of unevenly distributed impacts are high for additional warming above 2°C (medium confidence). 
(4) Global aggregate impacts: Risks of global aggregate impacts are moderate for additional warming between 1-2°C, reflecting impacts to both Earth’s biodiversity and the overall global economy (medium confidence). Extensive biodiversity loss with associated loss of ecosystem goods and services results in high risks around 3°C additional warming (high confidence). Aggregate economic damages accelerate with increasing temperature (limited evidence, high agreement) but few quantitative estimates have been completed for additional warming around 3°C or above. 
(5) Large-scale singular events: With increasing warming, some physical systems or ecosystems may be at risk of abrupt and irreversible changes. Risks associated with such tipping points become moderate between 0-1°C additional warming, due to early warning signs that both warm-water coral reef and Arctic ecosystems are already experiencing irreversible regime shifts (medium confidence). Risks increase disproportionately as temperature increases between 1-2°C additional warming and become high above 3°C, due to the potential for a large and irreversible sea-level rise from ice sheet loss. For sustained warming greater than some threshold,44 near-complete loss of the Greenland ice sheet would occur over a millennium or more, contributing up to 7m of global mean sea-level rise.
Again, I think the 2014 report comes in with higher confidence, but really they aren't that much different. Overall, I judge these two are fairly close in terms of level of alarm. The big difference comes in terms of adaptation and mitigation, to which the 2014 report pays much more attention.