Careful with that grenade

Danny Weston, well-read climate skeptic, deserves praise for this sojourn into the lion’s den. He visited a talk at the LSE (where talks are held in a very large venue) being given by James Hansen. I am not a well read climate-skeptic but even I recognise this name as someone who is both very prominent and very controversial, at least he’s controversial if you read the right blogs.

The reliably left-of-centre LSE crowd was predictablly alarmist and pro-Hansen and the only criticism he received was that he was “preaching to the choir”, that is, the only criticism until Danny got the microphone:

The mike came to me and I stood up and laid into him. I said that he was high on the hyperbole and hysteria and low on the facts. Most of the people there would unfortunately take him at his word and not look any further so I said I felt obliged to point out that most of his claims were highly controversial and some were flat out wrong and that I’d be happy to go through them with him there and then and debate him.

The crowd then turned on me, exploding in incredulity.

I have absolute respect for this. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up and do what he did in a room full of beleivers. I know, having failed horribly to summon the guts to do so myself at a talk about 10:10 in which they depicted cutting up an aeroplane to make silly 10:10 dog tags for their neophytes to adorn themselves with. A single person standing up and giving a reasonable account of why they disagree has the potential to impress upon dozens of silent bystanders, and perhaps even cause true-believers a few doubts. Remember David MacDonagh arguing about arguments working best on the best informed people, and in particular his assertion that it might take 18 months for a nagging doubt to turn a mind toward your way of thinking? The important point is make the arguments in the first place.

My guess is, that to do so, it helps to be forewarned and forearmed, to have a command of the intricate details, but also to have a few verbal-hand-grenades tucked up your sleeve so that you can make an impact quickly on as many people as possible. My guess is that a tricky thought-proking argument, or a simple but easily-verified fact has the most potential to embed rational-shapnel into the hearts and minds of the nearby audience and linger there for the required 18 months.

Well, anyway, I am not a particularly well-informed person so when I saw Danny enumerating his arsenal in his write up I naturally followed both links to understand what the controversy in Greenland was all about:

Regular readers of BH and other skeptical blogs will be familiar with all of them – TSI not being a factor in affecting the climate, “unprecedented melt” in Greenland (for which he showed this [2] image, with no mention of these [3] issues),

What I found on the opposite end of those links are an image showing a dramatic increase in ice-melt and a report about how some ice-melting did not in-fact occur at all. Wowser. It seems as though the alarmists are continuing to use erroneous data-visualisations to back up arguments when the erroneousness of the visualisation was already admitted by the people responsible for the data. Ouch, if that’s true then blimey – I’m persuaded – the alarmists are a bunch of crooks! Hang ’em and flog ’em!

Unfortunately, the ice-melt in the first picture dates from July 2012, but the crucial admission of guilt refers to different data from a different time-period and cites the short-term weather conditions at the time (Feb/March 2013) as the reason – and the reason given is not obviously disputed by either side. Of course, I expect to be invited by the skeptics to generalise from the latter data that the former data was probably incorrect as well, but I could just as easily – and am far more likely to if I am hopelessly brainwashed – to assume that the problem is in fact specific and local to the latter dataset and that the angrous-contrarian named Danny Weston is talking balls. I fear that the overall effect is of a hand-grenade loaded with Hurtloam – a serious kenetic impact that quickly resolves itself after a short nap, to be easily forgotten in the morning.

Danny’s adventure seems to be more than worthwhile, and worthy also of being emulated over and over again, but carry the right hand-grenades.

Hayek edges Keynes to victory

Last night’s Hayek vs Keynes debate was a pretty impressive affair. I arrived at the Old Building 15 minutes before kick off and ended up being the last person permitted into the East Building to watch on video link. The long queue of disappointed people behind me had to find alternative entertainment for the evening. It became abundantly clear that this high turnout was achieved with no small contribution from the Adam Smith Institute.

To warm us up we had the latest video from Econstories, which features a senate debate and boxing match analogy which Hayek wins with a knock out blow; yet Keynes is declared winner regardless. It seemed most of us in the video link room had seen this before and thoroughly enjoyed it but a quiet pause at the end of the video was punctured by a passionate stony faced man behind me yelling “pathetic nonsense!” as if the American producers would hear him.

There is nothing like an angry heckle to spoil the mood. People kept their heads down in case a real boxing match kicked off there and then. Obviously, passions in the Keynesian camp also ran high. The young economics geeks could be relied upon to create a parallel dimension on Twitter. In this universe the heckler was openly ridiculed, tweets kept coming, and the sense of anticipation was palpable. There seemed to be plenty to talk about despite nothing new occurring on stage.

The event itself opened with the moderator leading a straw poll. He asked the audience to make some noise and shout “Yo Keynes” and “Yo Hayek”. Very intellectual. Hayek supporters, asked to shout second, were well prepared to add volume to the argument.

Lord Sidelsky offered up a mix of theory, ad hominem and humour and quickly fell foul of Godwin’s Law as he attempted to attach Hayek to Hitler. Jamie Whyte was unexpectedly dry and excessively relaxed. Perhaps he felt that an effort to appear casual would cure his nerves, who knows, but his accusation that Keynesianism was purely an irrational faith in state-action touched a nerve. I found my self willing him to sit up straight and deliver his words with more power and deliver stronger blows.

Selgin also sat back, but was clearly excited to be there, fidgeting, shifting and waving his graphs for the audience. As a result he seemed to dominate the Hayek side of the argument batting away Keynesian arguments with a series of strong sound-bite rebuttals.

Sidelsky attempted to counter with an interesting dentist analogy. Apparently we go to a dentist seeking competent and humble action, and not to be told our teeth will fall out on their own. This was readily undermined by Selgin’s analogy to a hangover which has no easy cure save mature abstinence and foresight. Of course, Sidelsky misses the fact that if my teeth are going to fall out then I may decide, quiet sensibly, not to waste money I don’t have on dentists. Altogether unpersuasive.

Towards the end, debate centred around the policy prescriptions each philosopher would apply to the present circumstances. Selgin’s gave an erudite defence of inaction in case the actions taken caused malinvestments which became the cause of the next meltdown. Here Keynes won out, it seems that the desire to do something  overcomes even the urge to avoid doing harm.

Working with libertarians has introduced an unavoidable Hayekian bias in me. Leonard Peikoff’s endorsement of Ludwig von Mises helps too, but I was determined to listen closely to the Keynesian view. I did my best, and am committed to reviewing the audio as well, but what I heard from the left lacked the conceptual coherence of the Hayekian argument. It did not present cause and effect relationships between all the known features of the business cycle and Hayek’s explanation does. In addition the theory rests on concepts of how individuals make decisions that are readily verifiable against your own experiences. For me, these epistemological problems totally undermine the Keynesian position.

I saw that the Keynesians in the audience had got themselves worked up to make a noise once more for their hero, but justice was done when the more numerous Hayekians shouted them down once again.