Tierney on "Availability Entrepreneurs" and "Availability Cascades"

by Don Boudreaux on January 7, 2008

in Current Affairs, Environment, Myths and Fallacies

For several reasons, this New Year’s Day article by New York Times science writer John Tierney is a must-read.  Here are the opening several paragraphs:

I’d like to wish you a happy New Year, but I’m afraid I have a different sort of prediction.

You’re in for very bad weather. In 2008, your television will bring
you image after frightening image of natural havoc linked to global warming.
You will be told that such bizarre weather must be a sign of dangerous
climate change — and that these images are a mere preview of what’s in
store unless we act quickly to cool the planet.

Unfortunately, I can’t be more specific. I don’t know if disaster
will come by flood or drought, hurricane or blizzard, fire or ice. Nor
do I have any idea how much the planet will warm this year or what that
means for your local forecast. Long-term climate models cannot explain
short-term weather.

But there’s bound to be some weird weather somewhere, and we will
react like the sailors in the Book of Jonah. When a storm hit their
ship, they didn’t ascribe it to a seasonal weather pattern. They
quickly identified the cause (Jonah’s sinfulness) and agreed to an
appropriate policy response (throw Jonah overboard).

Today’s interpreters of the weather are what social scientists call
availability entrepreneurs: the activists, journalists and
publicity-savvy scientists who selectively monitor the globe looking
for newsworthy evidence of a new form of sinfulness, burning fossil

A year ago, British meteorologists made headlines predicting that
the buildup of greenhouse gases would help make 2007 the hottest year
on record. At year’s end, even though the British scientists reported
the global temperature average was not a new record — it was actually
lower than any year since 2001 — the BBC confidently proclaimed, “2007
Data Confirms Warming Trend.”

When the Arctic sea ice last year hit the lowest level ever recorded
by satellites, it was big news and heralded as a sign that the whole
planet was warming. When the Antarctic sea ice last year reached the
highest level ever recorded by satellites, it was pretty much ignored.
A large part of Antarctica has been cooling recently, but most coverage
of that continent has focused on one small part that has warmed.

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Chris O'Leary January 7, 2008 at 9:12 am

People need to understand that this is perfectly consistent because EVERYTHING is evidence of global warming.

If it's hotter. If it's colder.

If it's wetter. If it's drier.

Claiming that GW causes increased variability was a masterstroke.

muirgeo January 7, 2008 at 10:03 am

Teirney's position is exactly like some one claiming that you can not prove that any single person has ever died of lung cancer as a result of smoking. It's an insignificant argument. Basically it's an argument made of ignorance (willful I'm guessing in this case) that is irrelevant when the full scope of the data is considered. I for one am far more likely to lose my Lake Tahoe condo to fire NOW then 20 years ago. Multiple factors are at play but generalized warming in the area is a big one. Climate change HAS definitely killed and cost many people… but right, just who I can't tell you.

Now when experts make an argument that getting government out of the economy always improves the economy… that's a claim that can't be proved even when the whole of the data is considered.

I for one am far more skeptical of the "mainstream economic" theories then I am of the climate scientist theories. And it's an interesting observation how many economists and their theories are threatened by the climate scientist theories. Very interesting.

Jon January 7, 2008 at 10:20 am

Muirgeo …

Here's a link to my blog and an article within it.

You people act like this is climate canon and it's not.

Stop waving the flag of a cause which demands the end to civilized culture.

Martin Brock January 7, 2008 at 10:41 am

I accept your assessment of global warming hysteria in the media. I'm more interested in my economic opportunity in coming years. U.S. corporatists plainly cooperate with the Chinese and other corporatists to 1) fix the yuan/dollar exchange rate (and other rates) below a market rate and 2) convert the resulting dollar surplus into entitlement to future U.S. tax revenue (by running huge deficits and thus issuing a huge volume of Treasury notes), thus entitling agents of the Chinese state and others to the future purchase of U.S. means of production with current dollars if prices fall in the near future, as the price of real estate and corporate shares are currently falling. I don't know that prices will fall, but I know we're selling these entitlements.

I also fear that U.S. corporatists cooperate with Chinese and other corporatists to transfer exclusive, statutory monopolies over vast productive processes to China and other "low cost" producers. I don't mean "low cost" in any marginalist sense within a theory of free markets. I mean the price at these fixed exchange rates, however unsustainable the rates might be in the long run in a truly free market. Since markets are not free, these theories are not applicable and can only obfuscate.

The statutory monopolies include global software and business process patents that hardly existed in the U.S. only a decade ago and didn't exist at all two decades ago. We've not only globalized these statutory monopolies and vastly broadened their scope in the U.S. We're also adopting a "first to file" model, thus vastly expanding the volume of patents courts may not exclude based on prior art. We're even transferring authority over patent disputes from the courts and thus the common law to the Patent Office itself.

Understanding the dynamics of unfree "markets", why shouldn't these developments scare the hell out of me? I don't expect mass media to address these details at this point, if it ever does, but this web site isn't major media. I don't give a flip about global warming. You're right, but I've heard it all before. So what? Are you pitching for a job in the mass media or discussing economics here? I'm here precisely because you are not the mass media.

Chris January 7, 2008 at 11:29 am

muirgeo –

The problem for Global Warming proponents is that they love to make short-term predictions for a long-term gradual process. That's like claiming that when flipping a coin twice, half the flips will yield tails. Not only do they predict incorrectly, but they hurt their own credibility in doing so.

In any given year, weather-related events seem just as consistent with a world without global warming as with a world with global warming.

Jack January 7, 2008 at 11:43 am

Isn't the Kuran-Sunstein idea just a special case of "data mining"?

Per Kurowski January 7, 2008 at 2:17 pm

"Understanding the dynamics of unfree "markets", why shouldn't these developments scare the hell out of me? ….. I don't give a flip about global warming."

Posted by: Martin Brock | Jan 7, 2008 10:41:10 AM,

I absolutely agree with the first fear, we are right now witnessing what having to listen to a few credit rating agencies can lead the world to do, but I do also fear also an ongoing global environmental mayhem, whether it is warming, cooling or just turning plain ugly.

What I do not accept though is too see how many of those who warn the loudest against climatic changes thereafter go out and offer half-baked solutions like hybrid cars, wind energy, ethanol and carbon indulgencies. If it is serious threat well let us then act serious and not allow some professional entertainers or facilitators to distract us from doing that.

vidyohs January 7, 2008 at 9:15 pm

Yep, manufactured consent.

Per Kurowski…….man, I agree with you. But, the why is answered in the intro. Non existing problems = Half-baked solutions. A gore'sm to be sure.

brotio January 8, 2008 at 2:58 am

Murthaduck (the children they've killed in cold blood) must be sick.

He/she/it didn't accuse Tierney of heresy and call for his stoning for daring to disagree with His Holiness, The Divine Prophet Algore I.

Dave Tufte January 23, 2008 at 4:00 pm

Another example of availability entrepreneurship is the focus on variations on GDP when the news is bad.

There are a number of alternative to GDP that drop out or add in an item here or there: national income, personal income, personal disposal income, GNP, net domestic product, net national product, and so on.

Useful stuff – occasionally – for serious researchers.

But, you'd hear about these in the legacy media if they showed a loss. In dicey times, it isn't uncommon for some of these to go up and some down, but you'll always hear about the downside ones.

As a prof, I was pleased when the new edition of Colander – one of the heavy hitters of undergraduate macro texts – deleted out the section on these somewhat obscure statistics. I'd been telling students for years that they'd only hear about them if they went down.

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