David Roberts

David Roberts

Energy, politics, and more

David Roberts is a staff writer for Grist. You can subscribe to his RSS feed or follow him on Twitter or email him at droberts at grist dot org, if you're into that sort of thing.

Hedgehogs, predictions, and peak oil

What’s a prediction worth?

A few days ago, Kevin Drum pointed to a Louis Menand review of a book called Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? by psychologist Philip Tetlock. I haven't read the book, but the review is fascinating, and I highly recommend you read it before (or instead of) the rambling thoughts that follow. Tetlock's basic thesis, based on a multi-decade study, is that expert predictions are no better -- and often worse -- than random chance or the predictions of casual news consumers. Just like everyone else, experts display confirmation bias, underestimate their past mistakes, and fall for basic probability errors. Ah, fuel for anti-elitists everywhere ... This is not a new psychological finding -- laymen often express surprise at it, but psychologists have known for years that experts are no more reliable than anyone else. But one new insight Tetlock brings to the table relates to Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between hedgehogs (which know a lot about one thing) and foxes (which know a little about a lot of things). From the book:

Demonstrate good times, come on!

I'm all over Treehugger today. Go figure. Anyway, TH brings news of a massive worldwide series of demonstrations that, for reasons unfathomable, I wasn't aware of. Apparently, on Dec. 3 -- that's this Saturday! -- to coincide with the COP MOP talks in Montreal, groups in over 30 countries around the world are demonstrating: These demonstrations demand that the USA and Australia ratify the Kyoto Protocol immediately, and that the entire world community move as rapidly as possible to a stronger emissions reductions treaty that will be both equitable and effective in stabilising 'greenhouse' gases and preventing dangerous climate change. I tend to think it's a mistake for enviros to focus so obsessively on Kyoto, but as a symbolic matter it's hard to argue against focusing attention on U.S. and Australian intransigence. So go out and demonstrate on Saturday!


Of course it isn't Treehugger's fault, but Tim Haab makes a solid but lamentable point here.

What the meaning of ‘participation’ is

Oh, this is hilarious. You may recall that at a recent Senate hearing, oil industry execs were asked whether their companies participated in Cheney's notorious 2001 energy task force. They said No. That was ... what's the word? ... a lie. Or was it? Apparently there's some dispute: Yesterday, Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for the GOP staff of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, one of the two panels that convened the hearing, said its lawyers had reached a preliminary conclusion: Based on a court decision in which two groups unsuccessfully challenged the secrecy of the Cheney task force, Funk said the executives appeared to be telling the truth. "What we simply determined was that the definition of 'participation' was something litigated, and what the court concluded was that attending meetings, and even making presentations, did not rise to the level of fully participating," Funk said. Gosh, it seems like, what, only one administration ago that these kinds of carefully parsed word games were considered a dire threat to the moral fiber of our children. Guess times change.

Sierra Club gets positive

As Daily Grist readers will soon learn, the Sierra Club today released "Building Better: A Guide to America's Best New Development Projects." It's just what it sounds like: A complimentary profile of "walkable, transit accessible places to live and work." I think John Laumer's right: This is an extremely promising development. It's practically a cliche -- particularly since the Death debate -- that the environmental movement needs to offer solutions rather than just problems, to be for something rather than against everything. It's a cliche, and yet the large and lamentably inertia-bound movement hasn't really been doing it. Perhaps because it's more of a ground-up organization, the Sierra Club has been making some nice, high-profile moves in this direction. I hope all greens will welcome it.

Cause sometimes nature isn’t enough

Have y'all heard about this Grand Canyon Skywalk? WTF?

The Atlantic Ocean is going to kill you

Speaking of Oil Drum, they remind me to point to a new study in Nature (sorry, $30) showing that Atlantic Ocean currents are shifting -- which, if verified, could portend a climatic worst case scenario. The ocean current that gives western Europe its relatively balmy climate is stuttering, raising fears that it might fail entirely and plunge the continent into a mini ice age. The dramatic finding comes from a study of ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, which found a 30% reduction in the warm currents that carry water north from the Gulf Stream. ... Harry Bryden at the Southampton Oceanography Centre in the UK, whose group carried out the analysis, says he is not yet sure if the change is temporary or signals a long-term trend. "We don't want to say the circulation will shut down," he told New Scientist. "But we are nervous about our findings. They have come as quite a surprise." This is potentially Very Bad News. Atlantic currents carry warm water to Northern Europe. If they stop, weather there could get mighty cold -- ice-age cold. But as Stuart Staniford ominously notes (in quite a bit of technical detail, but fascinatingly): if all that warm water isn't going north, where ... ? Smack into the region where North Atlantic hurricanes form, that's where it's going. As the French say, l'eek.

Things that make you go ‘hm’

A guest poster over on Oil Drum shares, among other things, an interesting factoid. A useful, easy-to-remember aphorism is: ONE BARREL of oil is equivalent to ONE YEAR of very hard labor by a human. Hm.

Prius and oil

Calming down the hybrid hype.

Treehugger mocks this, from the notoriously hack-a-rrific Wall Street Journal editorial page: Petroleum not consumed by Prius owners is not "saved". It does not stay in the ground. It is consumed by someone else. Greenhouse gases are still released. I'm all for mocking the WSJ editorial page, but this statement is quite true. Oil supply and demand are tightly coupled right now and are only going to get more so. Any dribble of oil you don't use will be snapped up by someone else -- perhaps one of the growing legion of Chinese drivers -- and so on and on until the remaining oil becomes prohibitively expensive and forces the market to provide alternatives. It would be nice to think that environmental sentiment could free the world from oil, but it'll never happen. If your goal is to save money or save oil, buying a Prius should be far down your list. Buy a Prius, if you like, to express your values and make a statement to manufacturers that there's a market for these kinds of cars. But let's not let the hybrid hype get out of hand.

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