The Casual Blog

Tag: Tea Party

Climate changing and improving decision-making

It was unseasonably warm this week in central North Carolina. Some daffodils and forsythia are starting to bloom. They’re beautiful, of course, but there’s something that doesn’t feel right. They’re not supposed to be here for another month or so. It’s hard not to think about climate change (a/k/a global warming) and be worried.

At least, hard for some of us. There’s a vocal minority of climate change-deniers that somehow keep grabbing the spotlight and the microphone. They create enough of a stir to prevent any serious political discourse on the most serious global environmental problem humankind has ever faced. It’s bizarre.

Yesterday’s NY Times reports that Tea Party activists are fighting local efforts to conserve energy on the grounds that such efforts are part of a United Nations-led conspiracy. Fox News is also involved in spreading of this lunacy. What is wrong with these people? There should be no debate about whether or not to pay attention to overwhelming body of scientific evidence establishing global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences — but there is.

Our species is headed towards the edge of a cliff. We should be focusing enormous resources on minimizing CO2 and other emissions. This should be our new Apollo program — to land our grandchildren on a planet that’s sustainable.

We’ve really got to get this effort started. I suggest as a first step we agree that the opinions of science-deniers be subjected to appropriate brief ridicule and then ignored. Yes, everyone’s entitled to their opinions, but not every opinion is entitled to be taken seriously. Whether the source is ignorance, greed, or mental illness, opinions that have no basis in factual reality are at best a waste of time. In this case, they’re also increasing the risk of mortal peril. Basta!

For step two, or maybe step one-and-a-half, we should read Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. I’m about two-thirds of the way through, and I’m confident it will be in my list of top thought-provoking books of 2012. Kahneman is a Nobel-prize-winning psychologist and founding father of behavioral economics. His most recent book summarizes the research he, Amos Tversky, and others have done in the last few decades into the psychology of decision-making.

Kahneman divides judgment into two main parts: intuitive processes (thinking fast) and rational ones (thinking slow). The fast part plays a much greater part in our decisions that we think. We all rely on heuristics and biases to simplify complex matters. This mode of thinking is important — without it we’d be paralyzed — but it also sometimes leads to very bad decisions. Understanding more about the points of failure of our ordinary thought processes may help us avoid some errors and make better decisions. I hope.

Supreme Court connections to gifted people

This week I signed a letter in support of the nomination of Elena Kagan that was written by Peter Keisler and Harry Litman and signed by most of the Supreme Court clerks from the year (OT ’86) our group worked for the Court.  I always liked and respected Elena.  She was bright and friendly, and I was happy to guard her in our clerk basketball games, where I was fortunate to have a meaningful height advantage (she could shoot).   I find it reassuring that in a world where Tea Party whack jobs are sometimes taken seriously that Elena with such old-fashioned and relatively unexciting qualities as intelligence, balance, and decency has quietly risen to the apex of the legal profession.

I made another Supreme Court connection this week when I caught up with Larry Lessig.  Lessig clerked for Justice Scalia a few years after I did.  Now a law professor at Harvard, he’s distinguished himself as a constitutional and intellectual property law scholar and reformer.  His work on copyright law, including Free Culture and Remix, challenges the received wisdom that more copyright protection promotes greater creativity and shows that the opposite may be the result.  In this area, he’s a true rock star.

Lessig’s current project is focusing on the corrosive role of money in our political system.  On Tuesday Mel Chernoff and I attended the talk he gave at Campbell Law School promoting public financing of elections.  He’s well known for his extraordinary slide shows, which use super quick cuts to press points, and this was a good one.  We’d corresponded by email previously, and it was good to make a face-to-face connection after the event.  In addition to being brilliant, he seemed like a warm and sincere guy.

When I have personal encounters with really gifted people, I generally find it unsettling.  It’s inspiring, and I find myself thinking so much more is possible, but also being more-than-usually aware of my personal limits.  As John McPhee once noted in the context of great tennis players, there are many levels of the game.   It’s a privilege to play with higher level players, and rewarding. If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger.  But it does not promote calm and tranquility.

It is