Arquivo mensal: setembro 2011

Futures Impossible : a new methodology to study world events (

By Jacques Vallee at 11:36 am Thursday, Sep 15

NeckercubeeeeThe study of the future, as a scientific and intellectual endeavor, used to be driven by the careful extrapolation of trends, as in Herman Kahn’s Year 2000, or the forecasting of complex interaction among many variables, as in the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb. The technologies behind these studies relied on the mathematical tools of operations research developed during World War Two and on methods for the aggregation of expert opinion such as the Delphi Technique, developed at Rand and the Institute for the Future.

The scenarios and forecasts built on this technical base were supplemented by the study of a few extreme hypothetical situations known as “wild cards” or “black swans” (major earthquake in Tokyo, terrorist attack in New York, asteroid strike in Western Europe) designed to stretch the borders of the crisis management maps and to stimulate our collective thought process—while remaining within the domain of the Possible.

Such techniques for describing the future and anticipating its opportunities and dangers have largely become obsolete because of the acceleration of technology itself and the increasing vulnerability of our society to chaotic processes that are not well behaved under most classic models.

 In the world of the 21st century, the situations faced by decision-makers in government and industry are of a wholly different nature. In an economic environment where General Motors could go bankrupt in one week, and Lehman Brothers in one afternoon, the extrapolation of trends and the wisdom of experts are still relevant, but a new methodology is needed to deal with unforeseen discontinuities. Neither of the above catastrophes was a “wild card” in anyone’s scenario. No classical futurist could imagine such discontinuities because the tools to anticipate and describe them were not available: they were truly “impossible,” just as the Fukushima nuclear disaster was deemed “impossible” by the General Electric experts who built the plant and the Japanese authorities who managed it. Similarly, as a society, we seem to be incapable of imagining healthy, positive “impossibilities” such as reconciliation in Palestine, an end to terrorism, or a world without starvation.

At the Institute for the Future, a team headed up by Bob Johansen, Kathi Vian and myself has begun to develop a typology of Impossible Futures, starting from four classes of events:

A. Some futures are deemed impossible because they would require an extraordinary convergence of several scenarios, each of which has very low probability. The bankruptcy of General Motors (Fortune One!) in one week is a case in point.

B. Some futures are deemed impossible because they would require the convergence of several scenarios on time scales that violate our knowledge of reality. The failure of the Madoff funds, for example, was deemed impossible by his investors, all of whom were successful financial experts. It happened because two low-probability events converged: (1) regulatory authorities repeatedly refused to act every time the illegal scheme was brought to their attention, and (2) the subprime crisis dried up sources of funds overnight, exposing the fraudulent structure.

C. Some futures are deemed impossible because they would require the convergence of several scenarios, including forces or components that do not exist within accepted knowledge. In A.E.Van Vogt’s novel The World of null-A (for non-Aristotelian), a secret agent named Gosseyn is repeatedly assassinated. Each time, he is reincarnated in a new body held in reserve by his masters in special sarcophagi, endowed with increased abilities. A future when Gosseyn could exist lies outside the natural limits of our scientific knowledge and culture.

D. There are futures that are deemed impossible because we simply cannot imagine them. In Saddam Hussein’s culture there was no scenario in which U.S. forces could see the movement of his forces even at night, through clouds or through dust storms. Most nations still have no concept for devices that could detect underground cavities invisible from the air or from space. Even in modern American culture, the fact that remote classified facilities can be detected, visited, and accurately described by mental powers alone remains beyond accepted concepts.

To a decision-maker in business or government, simply describing such impossible future scenarios is not helpful in the absence of a methodology for detecting, understanding, and mitigating their practical effects. What is needed is a deeper grid that can be used as an overlay to highlight radical discontinuities in technology, geopolitics, social behavior or economic patterns. We believe that such a tool needs to be developed if we want to survive the new realities where worldviews collide at an accelerated pace.

The Folly of Prediction: Full Transcript (


06/30/2011 | 4:58 pm

Stephen J. DUBNER: What does it mean to be a witch exactly in Romania? Are these people that we know here as psychics or fortunetellers, or are they different somehow?

Vlad MIXICH: I don’t know how is the fortuneteller in the United States. But here generally they are a woman of different ages. They can–they say they can cure some diseases. They can bring back your husband or your wife. Or they can predict your future.

DUBNER: Who is a typical client for a witch?

MIXICH: There are quite a lot of politicians who are going to witches. You know the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, he went to witches last year. And our president in Romania, and very important politicians from different parties, they are going to witches. Some of them they were obliged to recognize they went to witches. Some of them it’s an off-the-record information. But me being a journalist, I know that information.

DUBNER: Vlad Mixich is a reporter in Bucharest, the capital of Romania. He knows a good bit about the witches there.

MIXICH: Quite a lot of them they are quite rich. They have very big houses with golden rooftops. A lot of the Romanians, they are living in small apartments in blocks. So, just going in such a building will give you a sense of majesty and respect.

DUBNER: But the Romanian witch industry has been under attack. First came a proposed law to regulate and tax the witches. It passed in one chamber of Parliament before stalling out. But then came another proposal arguing that witches should be penalized if the predictions they make don’t turn out to be true.

MIXICH: So if you are one of my clients, and if I’m a fortune teller, if I fail to predict your future, I pay a quite substantial fine to the state, or if this happens many times, I will even go to jail. The punishment is between six months and three years in jail.

DUBNER: What’s being proposed in Romania is revolutionary. It strikes me because we typically don’t hold anybody accountable for bad predictions. So, I’m wondering in Romania, let’s say, if a politician makes a bad prediction, do they get fined or penalized in any way?

MIXICH: No, not at all. In fact this is one of the hobbies of our president. He’s doing a lot of predictions, which are not coming true, of course. And after that he is reelected! Or his popularity is rising, like the sun in the morning, you know? No, anyone can do publicly a lot of predictions here in eastern Europe and not a single hair will move from his or her head.

DUBNER: C’mon people, that doesn’t seem fair, does it? I don’t care if you’re anti-witch or pro-witch or witch-agnostic. Why should witches be the only people held accountable for bad predictions? What about politicians and money managers and sports pundits? And what about you?


ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Today: The Folly of Prediction. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: All of us are constantly predicting the future, whether we think about it or not. Right now, some small part of your brain is trying to predict what this show is going to be about. How do you do that? You factor in what you’ve heard so far. What you know about Freakonomics. Maybe you know a lot, maybe you’ve never heard of it, you might think it’s some kind of communicable disease! When you predict the future, you look for cognitive cues, for data, for guidance. Here’s where I go for guidance.

Steven LEVITT: I think to an economist, the best explanation for why there are so many predictions is that the incentives are set up in order to encourage predictions.

DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt. He’s my Freakonomics friend and co-author, an economist at the University of Chicago.

LEVITT: So, most predictions we remember are ones which were fabulously, wildly unexpected and then came true. Now, the person who makes that prediction has a strong incentive to remind everyone that they made that crazy prediction which came true. If you look at all the people, the economists, who talked about the financial crisis ahead of time, those guys harp on it constantly. “I was right, I was right, I was right.” But if you’re wrong, there’s no person on the other side of the transaction who draws any real benefit from embarrassing you by bring up the bad prediction over and over. So there’s nobody who has a strong incentive, usually, to go back and say, Here’s the list of the 118 predictions that were false. I remember growing up, my mother, who is somewhat of a psychic–

DUBNER: Wait, somewhat of a psychic?

LEVITT: She’s a self-proclaimed psychic. And she would predict a stock market crash every single year.

DUBNER: And she’s been right a couple times.

LEVITT: And she has been. She’s been right twice in the last 15 years, and she would talk a lot about the times she was right. I would have to remind her about the 13 times that she was wrong. And without any sort of market mechanism or incentive for keeping the prediction makers honest, there’s lots of incentive to go out and to make these wild predictions. And those are the ones that are remembered and talked about. Think of about one of the predictions that you hear echoed more often than just about any one is Joe Namath’s famous pronouncement about how the Jets were going to win the Super Bowl. And it was unexpected. And it happened. And if the Jets had lost the Super Bowl, nobody would remember that Joe Namath made that pronouncement.

DUBNER: And conversely, you can probably find at least one player on every team that’s lost the Super Bowl in the last forty years that did predict that his team would win.

LEVITT: That’s probably right. That’s exactly right. Now, the flip side, which is perhaps surprising, is that in many cases the goal of prediction is to be completely within the pack. And so I see this a lot with pension fund managers, or endowment managers, which is if something goes wrong then as long as everybody else made the same prediction, you can’t be faulted very much.

DUBNER: Pension managers. Football players. Psychic moms. Romanian witches. Who doesn’t try to predict the future these days?


DUBNER: And you know the worst thing? There’s almost nobody keeping track of all those predictions! Nobody … except for this guy …

Philip TETLOCK: Well, I’m a research psychologist, who …

DUBNER: Don’t forget your name, though.

TETLOCK: I’m Phil Tetlock and I’m a research psychologist. I spent most of career at the University of California, Berkeley, and I recently moved to the University of Pennsylvania where I’m cross- appointed in the Wharton School and the psychology department.

DUBNER: Philip Tetlock has done a lot of research on cognition and decision-making and bias, pretty standard stuff for an Ivy League psych PhD. But what really fascinates him is prediction.

TETLOCK: There are a lot of psychologists who believe that there is a hard-wired human need to believe that we live in a fundamentally predictable and controllable universe. There’s also a widespread belief among psychologists that people try hard to impose causal order on the world around them, even when those phenomena are random.

DUBNER: This hardwired human need, as Tetlock puts it, has created what he calls a prediction industry. Now, don’t sneer. You’re part of it, too.

TETLOCK: I think there are many players in what you might count the prediction industry. In some sense we’re all players in it. Whenever we go to a cocktail party, or a colloquium, or whatever where opinions are being shared, we frequently make likelihood judgments about possible futures. And the truth or falsity of particular claims about futures. The prediction business is a big business on Wall Street, and we have futures markets and so forth designed to regulate speculation in those areas. Obviously, government has great interest in prediction. They create large intelligence agency bureaucracies and systems to help them achieve some degree of predictability in a seemingly chaotic world.

DUBNER: Let me read something that you have said or written in the past. “This determination to ferret out order from chaos has served our species well. We’re all beneficiaries of our great collective successes in pursuit of deterministic regularities in messy phenomena — agriculture, antibiotics, and countless other inventions.” So talk to me for a moment about the value of prediction. Obviously there’s much has been gained, much to be gained. Do we overvalue prediction though, perhaps?

TETLOCK: I think there’s an asymmetry of supply and demand. I think there is an enormous demand for accurate predictions in many spheres of life in which we don’t have the requisite expertise to deliver. And when you have that kind of gap between demand and real supply you get the infusion of fake supply.

DUBNER: “Fake supply.” I like this guy, this Philip Tetlock. He’s not an economist, but he knows the laws of supply and demand can’t just be revoked. So if there’s big demand for prediction in all realms of life, and not enough real supply to satisfy it, what does this “fake supply” sound like?


DUBNER: There’s a punditocracy out there, a class of people who predict ad nauseam, often on television. They can be pretty good at making their predictions tough to audit.

TETLOCK: It’s the art of appearing to go out on a limb without actually going out on a limb. For example, the word “could,” something “could” happen, the room you happen to be sitting in could be struck by a meteor in the next 23 seconds. That makes perfect sense, but the probability of course is point zero, zero, zero, zero, et cetera, one. It’s not zero, but it’s extremely low. In fact, the word “could,” the possible meanings people attach to it range from a 0.01 to a .6, which covers more than half the probability scale right there.

DUBNER: Look, nobody likes a weasel. So more than 20 years ago, Tetlock set out to conduct one of the largest empirical studies, ever, of predictions. He chose to focus on predictions about political developments around the world. He enlisted some of the world’s foremost experts — the kind of very smart people who have written definitive books, who show up on CNN or on the Times’s op-ed page.

TETLOCK: In the end we had close to three hundred participants. And they were very sophisticated political observers. Virtually all of them had some post-graduate education. Roughly two-thirds of them had PhDs. They were largely political scientists, but there were some economists and a variety of other professionals as well.

DUBNER: And they all participated in your study anonymously, correct?

TETLOCK: That was a very important condition for obtaining cooperation.

DUBNER: Now, if they were not anonymous then presumably we would recognize some of their names, these are prominent people at political science departments, economics departments at I’m guessing some of the better universities around the world, is that right?

TETLOCK: Well, I don’t want to say too much more, but I think you would recognize some of them, yes. I think some of them had substantial Google counts.

SJD NARR: The study became the basis of a book Tetlock published a few years ago, called “Expert Political Judgment.” There were two major rounds of data collection, the first beginning in 1988, the other in 1992. These nearly 300 experts were asked to make predictions about dozens of countries around the world. The questions were multiple choice. For instance: In Democracy X — let’s says it’s England — should we expect that after the next election, the current majority party will retain, lose, or strengthen its status? Or, for Undemocratic Country Y — Egypt, maybe — should we expect the basic character of the political regime to change in the next five years? In the next 10 years? and if so, in what direction? And to what effect? The experts made predictions within their areas of expertise, and outside; and they were asked to rate their confidence for their predictions. So after tracking the accuracy of about 80,000 predictions by some 300 experts over the course of 20 years, Philip Tetlock found:

TETLOCK: That experts thought they knew more than they knew.That there was a systematic gap between subjective probabilities that experts were assigning to possible futures and the objective likelihoods of those futures materializing.

DUBNER: Let me translate that for you. The experts were pretty awful. And you think: awful compared to what? Did they beat a monkey with a dartboard?

TETLOCK: Oh, the monkey with a dartboard comparison, that comes back to haunt me all the time. But with respect to how they did relative to, say, a baseline group of Berkeley undergraduates making predictions, they did somewhat better than that. Did they do better than an extrapolation algorithm? No, they did not. They did for the most part a little bit worse than that. How did they do relative to purely random guessing strategy? Well, they did a little bit better than that, but not as much as you might hope.

DUBNER: That “extrapolation algorithm” that Tetlock mentioned? That’s simply a computer programmed to predict “no change in current situation.” So it turned out these smart, experienced, confident experts predicted the political future about as well, if not slightly worse, than the average daily reader of The New York Times.

TETLOCK: I think the most important takeaway would be that the experts are, they think they know more than they do. They were systematically overconfident. Some experts were really massively overconfident. And we are able to identify those experts based on some of their characteristics of their belief system and their cognitive style, their thinking style.

DUBNER: OK. So now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes people predict well or predict poorly. What are the characteristics then of a poor predictor?

TETLOCK: Dogmatism.

DUBNER: It can be summed up that easily?

TETLOCK: I think so. I think an unwillingness to change one’s mind in a reasonably timely way in response to new evidence. A tendency, when asked to explain one’s predictions, to generate only reasons that favor your preferred prediction and not to generate reasons opposed to it.

DUBNER: And I guess what’s striking to me and I’d love to hear what you had to say about this is that it’s easy to provide one word, prediction, to many, many, many different realms in life. But those realms all operate very differently — so politics is different from economics, and predicting a sports outcome is different than predicting, you know, an agricultural outcome. It seems that we don’t distinguish so much necessarily and that there’s this modern sense almost that anything can be and should be able to be predicted. Am I kind of right on that, or no?

TETLOCK: I think there’s a great deal of truth to that. I think it is very useful in talking about the predictability of the modern world to distinguish those aspects of the world that show a great deal of linear regularity and those parts of the world that seems to be driven by complex systems that are decidedly nonlinear and decidedly difficult if not impossible to predict.

DUBNER: Talk to me about a few realms that generally are very, very hard to predict, and a few realms that generally are much easier.

TETLOCK: Predicting Scandinavian politics is a lot easier than predicting Middle Eastern politics.

DUBNER: Yes, that was the first one that came to my mind too! All right, but keep going.

TETLOCK: The thing about the radically unpredictable environments is that they often appear for long periods of time to be predictable. So, for example, if you had been a political forecaster predicting regime longevity in the Middle East, you would have done extremely well predicting in Egypt that Mubarak would continue to be the president of Egypt year after year after year in much the same way that if you had been a Sovietologist you would have done very well in the Brezhnev era predicting continuity. There’s an aphorism I quote in the “Expert Political Judgment” book from Karl Marx. I’m obviously not a Marxist but it’s a beautiful aphorism that he had which was that, “When the train of history hits a curve, the intellectuals fall off.”

DUBNER: Coming up: Who do you predict we’ll hear from next — a bunch of people who are awesomely good at predicting the future? Yeah, right. Maybe later. First, we’ll hear some more duds — from Wall Street, the NFL, and … the cornfield.


ANNOUNCER: From American Public Media and WNYC, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

DUBNER: So Phillip Tetlock has sized up the people who predict the future–geopolitical change, for instance–and determined that they’re not very good at predicting the future. He also tells us that their greatest flaw is dogmatism–sticking to their ideologies even when presented with evidence that they’re wrong. You buy that? I buy it. Politics is full of ideology; why shouldn’t the people who study politics be a least a little bit ideological? So let’s try a different set of people, people who make predictions that, theoretically at least, have nothing to do with ideology. Let’s go to Wall Street.


Christina FANG: I’m Christina Fang, a Professor of Management at New York University’s business school.

DUBNER: Christina Fang, like Philip Tetlock, is fascinated with prediction:

FANG: Well, I guess generally forecasting about anything, about technology, about a product, whether it will be successful, about whether an idea, a venture idea could take off, a lot of things, not just economic but also business in general.

DUBNER: Fang wasn’t interested in just your street-level predictions, though. She wanted to know about the Big Dogs, the people who make bold economic predictions that carry price tags in the many millions or even billions of dollars. Along with a fellow researcher, Jerker Denrell, Fang gathered data from the Wall Street Journal’s Survey of Economic Forecasts. Every six months, the paper asked about 50 top economists to predict a set of macroeconomic numbers — unemployment, inflation, gross national product, things like that. Fang audited seven consecutive surveys, with an eye toward a particular question: when someone correctly predicts an extreme event — a market crash, maybe, or a sudden spike in inflation — what does that say about his overall forecasting ability?

FANG: In the Wall Street Journal survey if you look at the extreme outcomes, either extremely bad outcomes and extremely good outcomes, you see that those people who correctly predicted either extremely good or extremely bad outcomes, they’re likely to have overall lower level of accuracy. In other words, they’re doing poorer in general.

SJD NARR: Uh-oh. You catching this?

FANG: Those people who happen to predict accurately the extreme events, we also look at their–they happen to also have a lower overall level of accuracy.

DUBNER: So I can be right on the big one but if I’m right on the big one I generally will tend to be more often wrong than the average person.

FANG: On average–

DUBNER: On average.

FANG: Across everyday predictions as well. And our research suggests that for someone who has successfully predicted those events, we are going to predict that they are not likely to repeat their success very often. In other words, their overall capability is likely to be not as impressive as their apparent success seems to be.

DUBNER: So the people who make big, bold, correct predictions are in general worse than average at predicting the economic future. Now, why is this a problem? Maybe they’re just like home-run hitters — y’know, a lot of strikeouts but a lot of power too. All right, I’ll tell you why it’s a problem. Actually, I’ll have Steve Levitt tell you.

LEVITT: The incentives for prediction makers are to make either cataclysmic or utopian predictions, right? Because you don’t get attention if I say that what’s going to happen tomorrow is exactly as what’s going to happen today…

DUBNER: You don’t get on TV.

LEVITT: I don’t get on TV. If it happens to come true, who cares? I don’t get any credit for it coming true either.

DUBNER: There’s a strong incentive to make extreme predictions; because, seriously, who tunes in to hear some guy say that “Next year will be pretty much like last year”? And once you have been right on an extreme forecast — let’s say you predicted the 2008 market crash and the Great Recession — even if you were predicting it every year, like Steve Levitt’s mother — you’ll still be known as The Guy Who Called the Big One. And even if all your followup predictions are wrong, you still got the Big One right. Like Joe Namath.

All right, look. Predicting the economy? Predicting the political future? Those are hard. Those are big, complex systems with lots of moving parts. So how about football? If you’re an NFL expert, how hard can it be to forecast, say, who the best football teams will be in a given year? We asked Freakonomics researcher Hayes Davenport to run the numbers for us:

Hayes DAVENPORT: Well, I looked at the past three years of expert picking from the major NFL prediction outlets, which are USA Today, and We looked at a hundred and five sets of picks total. They’re picking division winners for each year, as well as the wild card for that year. So they’re basically picking the whole playoff picture for that year.

DUBNER: So talk about just kind of generally the degree of difficulty of making this kind of a pick.

DAVENPORT: Well, if you’re sort of an untrained animal, making NFL picks, you’re going to have about a twenty-five percent chance of picking each division correctly because there are only four teams.

DUBNER: All right so Hayes, you’re saying that an untrained animal would be about twenty five percent accurate if you pick one out of four. But what about a trained animal, like a me, a casual fan? How do I do compared to the experts?

DAVENPORT: Right. So if you’re cutting off the worst team in each division, if you’re not picking among those you’ll be right, thirty-three percent of the time, one in three, and the experts are right about thirty-six percent of the time, so just a little better than that.

DUBNER: OK, so if you’re saying they’re picking about thirty-six percent accuracy, and I or someone by chance would pick at about thirty three-percent accuracy. So that’s a three percentage point improvement, or about a ten percent better, maybe we should say, you know, that’s not bad. If you beat the stock market by ten percent every year you’d be doing great. So are these NFL pundits being thirty-six percent right being really wonderful or–

DAVENPORT: I wouldn’t say that because there’s a specific fallacy these guys are operating from, which is they tend to rely much too heavily on the previous year’s standings in making their picks for the following year. They play it very conservatively. But there’s a very high level of parity in the NFL right now, so that’s not exactly how it works.

DUBNER: Tell me some of the pundits who whether by luck or brilliance and hard work turn out to be really, really good.

DAVENPORT: Sure. There are two guys from ESPN who are sort of far ahead of the field. One is Pat Yasinskas, and the other is John Clayton, who is pretty well known; he makes a lot of appearances on SportsCenter and he’s kind of a, nebbish-y professorial type. And they perform much better than everyone else because they’re excellent wild-card pickers. They’re the only people who have correctly predicted both wild card teams in a conference in a season. But they’re especially good because they actually play it much safer than everyone else.

DUBNER: Now you say that they are very good. Persuade me that they’re good and not lucky.

DAVENPORT: I can’t do that. There’s a luck factor involved in all of these predictions. For example, if you pick the Patriots in 2008 and Tom Brady gets injured, and they drop out of the playoffs, there’s very little you can do to predict that. So injuries will mess with prediction all the time. And other turnover rates in football that are sort of unpredictable. So there’s a luck factor to all of this.

DUBNER: So whether it’s football experts calling Sunday’s game or economists forecasting the economy, or political pundits looking for the next revolution, we’re talking about accuracy rates that barely beat a coin toss. But maybe all these guys deserve a break. Maybe it’s just inherently hard to predict the future of other human beings. They’re so malleable; so unpredictable! So how about a prediction where human beings are incidental to the main action?

Joe PRUSACKI: I’m Joe Prusacki and I am the Director of Statistics Division with USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS for short.

DUBNER: You grew up on a farm, yeah?

PRUSACKI: Uh-huh: Yep, I grew up in–I always call it “deep southern” Illinois. I’m sitting here in Washington DC and where I grew up in Illinois is further south than where I’m sitting today. We raised…we had corn, soybeans and raised hogs.

DUBNER: You’ve heard of Anna Wintour, right? The fabled editor of Vogue magazine? Joe Prusacki is kinda like Anna Wintour for farmers. He puts out publications that are read by everyone who’s anyone in the industry — titles like “Acreage” and “Prospective Plantings” and “Crop Production.” Prusacki’s reports carry running forecasts of crop yields for cotton, soybeans, wheat and corn.

PRUSACKI: Most of the time our monthly forecasts are probably within I can guarantee you within five percent and most of the time I can say within two to three percent of the final. And someone would say that’s seems very good. But in the agricultural world, the users expect us to be much more precise in our forecasts.

DUBNER: So how does this work? How does the USDA forecast something as vast as the agricultural output of American farmers?

PRUSACKI: Like at the beginning of March, we will conduct a large survey of farmers and ranchers across the United States and sample size this time, this year was about 85,000.

DUBNER: The farmers are asked how many acres they plan to devote to each crop. Corn, let’s say. Then, in late July, the USDA sends out a small army of “enumerators” into roughly 1,900 cornfields in 10 states. These guys mark off plots of corn, 20 feet long by two rows across.

PRUSACKI: They’re randomly placed. We have randomly selected fields, in random location within field. So you may get a sample that’s maybe 20 paces into the field and 40 rows over and you may get one that’s 250 paces into the field and 100 rows over.

DUBNER: The enumerators look at every plant in that plot.

PRUSACKI: And then they’ll count what they see or anticipate to be ears based on looking at the plant.

DUBNER: A month later, they go back out again and check the cornstalks, check the ears.

PRUSACKI: Well, you could have animal loss, animal might chew the plant off, the plant may die. So all along we’re updating the number of plants, all along we’re updating the number of ears. The other thing we need, you need an estimate of ear weight or fruit weight.

DUBNER: So they go out again, cut off a bunch of ears and weigh them. But wait: still not done. After the harvest, there’s one more round of measurement.

PRUSACKI: Once the field is harvested, and the machine has gone through the field, the enumerator will go back out to the field, they’ll lay out another plot–just beyond the harvest area where we were–and they will go through and pick up off the ground any kernels that are left on the ground, pieces of ears of corn and such on the ground so we get a measure of harvest loss.

DUBNER: So this sounds pretty straightforward, right? Compared to predicting something like the political or economic future, estimating corn yield based on constant physical measurements of corn plants is pretty simple. Except for one thing. It’s called the weather. Weather remains so hard to predict in the long term that the USDA doesn’t even use forecasts; it uses historic averages instead.

DUBNER: So Joe, talk to me about what happened last year with the USDA corn forecast. You must have known this was coming from me. So the Wall Street Journal’s headline was: “USDA Flubs in Predicting Corn Crops.” Explain what happened.

PRUSACKI: Well, this is the weather factor that came into play. It turned out pretty hot and pretty dry in most of the growing region. And I had asked a few folks that are out and about in Iowa what happened. They said this is just a really strange year. We just don’t know. Now, when if someone says did we flub it? I don’t know. It was the forecast based on the information I had as for August 1. Now, September 1, I had a different set of information. October 1, I had a different set of information. Could we have did a better job?

DUBNER: A lot of people thought they could have. Last June, the USDA lowered its estimate of corn stockpiles; and in October, it cut its estimate of corn yield. After the first report, the price of corn spiked 9 percent. The second report? Another 6 percent. Joe Prusacki got quite a few e-mails:

PRUSACKI: OK, the first one is, this was: “Thanks a lot for collapsing the grain market today with your stupid…and the word is three letters, begins with an “a” and then it has two dollar signs … USDA report.

“As bad as the stench of dead bodies in Haiti must be, it can’t even compare to the foul stench of corruption emanating from our federal government in Washington DC.”

DUBNER: It strikes me that there’s room for trouble here in that your forecasts are used by a lot of different people who engage in a lot of different markets, and your research can move markets. I’m wondering what kind of bribes maybe come your way?

PRUSACKI: It’s interesting, I have people that call, we call them ‘fishersThey call maybe a day or two days before when we’re finishing our work and it’s like I tell them, I say, “Why do you do this? We’ve had this discussion before.” There’s a couple things, one I sign a confidentiality statement every year that says I shall not release any information before it’s due time or bad things happen. It’s a $100,000 fine or time in prison. It’s like the dollar fine, OK. It’s the prison part that bothers me!

DUBNER: But there’s got to be a certain price at which–so let’s say I offered you, I came to you and I said–Joe, $10 million for a 24-hour head start on the corn forecast.

PRUSACKI: I’m not going to do it. Trust me, somebody would track me down.

DUBNER: I hear you.

PRUSACKI: Again, the prison time, it bothers me.

DUBNER: All right, so Joe Prusacki probably can’t be bought. And the USDA is generally considered to do a pretty good job with crop forecasts. But: look how hard the agency has to work, measuring corn fields row by row, going back to look for animal loss and harvest loss. And still, its projection, which is looking only a few months into the future, can get thrown totally out of whack by a little stretch of hot, dry weather. That dry spell was essentially a random event, kind of like Tom Brady’s knee getting smashed. I hate to tell you this but the future is full of random events. That’s why it’s so hard to predict. That’s why it can be scary. Do we know this? Of course we know it. Do we believe it? Mmmmm.

Some scholars say that our need for prediction is getting worse — or, more accurately, that we get more upset now when the future surprises us. After all, as the world becomes more rational and routinized, we often know what to expect. I can get a Big Mac not only in New York but in Beijing, too — and they’ll taste pretty much the same. So when you’re used to that, and when things don’t go as expected — watch out.

Our species has been trying to foretell the future forever. Oracles and goat entrails and roosters pecking the dirt. The oldest religious texts are filled with prediction. I mean, look at the afterlife! What is that if not a prediction of the future? A prediction that, as far as I can tell, can never be categorically refuted or confirmed. A prediction so compelling that it remains all these years later a concept around which billions of people organize their lives. So what do you see when you gaze into the future? A yawning chasm of random events — or do you look for a neat pattern, even if no such pattern exists?

Nassim TALEB: It’s much more costly for someone to not detect a pattern.

DUBNER: That’s Nassim Taleb, the author of “Fooled By Randomness” and “The Black Swan.”

TALEB: It’s much costlier for us — as a race, to make the mistake of not seeing a leopard than having the illusion of pattern and imagining a leopard where there is none. And that error, in other words, mistaking the non-random for the random, which is what I call the “one-way bias.” Now that bias works extremely well, because what’s the big deal of getting out of trouble? It’s not costing you anything. But in the modern world, it is not quite harmless. Illusions of certainty makes you think that things that haven’t exhibited risk, for example the stock market, are riskless. We have the turkey problem — the butcher feeds the turkey for a certain number of days, and then the turkey imagines this is permanent.

DUBNER: “The butcher feeds the turkey and the turkey imagines this is permanent.” So you’ve got to ask yourself: who am I? The butcher? Or the turkey? Coming up: hedgehogs and foxes — and a prediction that does work. Here’s a hint: if you like this song, [MUSIC], you’ll probably like this one too: [MUSIC].


ANNOUNCER: From American Public Media and WNYC, this is Freakonomics Radio.

DUBNER: Hey, guess what, Sunshine? Al Gore didn’t win Florida. Didn’t become president either. Try walking that one back. So we are congenital predictors, but our predictions are often wrong. What then? How do you defend your bad predictions? I asked Philip Tetlock what all those political experts said when he showed them their results. He had already stashed their excuses in a neat taxonomy:

TETLOCK: So, if you thought that Gorbachev for example, was a fluke, you might argue, well my understanding of the Soviet political system is fundamentally right, and the Soviet Politburo, but for some quirky statistical aberration of the Soviet Politburo would have gone for a more conservative candidate. Another argument might be, well I predicted that Canada would disintegrate, that Quebec would secede from Canada, and it didn’t secede, but the secession almost did succeed because there was a fifty point one percentage vote against secession, and that’s well within the margin of sampling error.

DUBNER: Are there others you want to name?

TETLOCK: Well another popular prediction is “off on timing.” That comes up quite frequently in the financial world as well. Many very sophisticated students of finance have commented on how hard it is, saying the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay liquid, I think is George Soros’s expression. So, “off on timing” is a fairly popular belief-system defense as well. And I predicted that Canada would be gone. And you know what? It’s not gone yet. But just hold on.

DUBNER: You answered very economically when I asked you what are the characteristics of a bad predictor; you used one word, dogmatismm. What are the characteristics, then, of a good one?

TETLOCK: Capacity for constructive self-criticism.

DUBNER: How does that self-criticism come into play and actually change the course of the prediction?

TETLOCK: Well, one sign that you’re capable of constructive self-criticism is that you’re not dumbfounded by the question: What would it take to convince you you’re wrong? If you can’t answer that question you can take that as a warning sign.

DUBNER: In his study, Tetlock found that one factor was more important than any other in someone’s predictive ability: cognitive style. You know the story about the fox and the hedgehog?

TETLOCK: Isaiah Berlin tells us that the quotation comes from the Greek warrior poet Archilichus 2,500 years ago. And the rough translation was the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.

DUBNER: So, talk to me about what the foxes do as predictors and what the hedgehogs do as predictors.

TETLOCK: Sure. The foxes tend to have a rather eclectic, opportunistic approach to forecasting. They’re very pragmatic. A famous aphorism by Deng Xiaoping was he “didn’t care if the cat was white or black as long as it caught mice.” And I think the attitude of many foxes is they really didn’t care whether ideas came from the left or the right, they tended to deploy them rather flexibly in deriving predictions. So they often borrowed ideas across schools of thought that hedgehogs viewed as more sacrosanct. There are many subspecies of hedgehog. But what they have in common is a tendency to approach forecasting as a deductive, top-down exercise. They start off with some abstract principles, and they apply those abstract principles to messy, real-world situations, and the fit is often decidedly imperfect.

DUBNER: So foxes tend to be less dogmatic than hedgehogs, which makes them better predictors. But, if you had to guess, who do you think more likely to show up TV or in an op-ed column, the pragmatic, nuanced fox or the know-it-all hedgehog?


DUBNER: You got it!

TETLOCK: Hedgehogs, I think, are more likely to offer quotable sound bites, whereas foxes are more likely to offer rather complex, caveat-laden sound bites. They’re not sound bites anymore if they’re complex and caveat-laden.

DUBNER: So, if you were to gain control of let’s say a really big media outlet, New York Times, or NBC TV, and you said, you know, I want to dispense a different kind of news and analysis to the public, what would you do? How would you suggest building a mechanism to do a better job of keeping all this kind of poor expert prediction out of the, off the airwaves.

TETLOCK: I’m so glad you asked that question. I have some specific ideas about that. And I don’t think they would be all that difficult to implement. I think they should try to keep score more. I think there’s remarkably little effort in tracking accuracy. If you happen to be someone like Tom Friedman or Paul Krugman, or someone who’s at the top of the pundit pecking order, there’s very little incentive for you to want to have your accuracy tested because your followers are quite convinced that you’re extremely accurate, and it’s pretty much a game you can only lose.

DUBNER: Can you imagine? Every time a pundit appeared on TV, the network would list his batting average, right after his name and affiliation. You think that might cut down on blowhard predictions just a little bit? Looking back at what we’ve learned so far, it makes me wonder: maybe the first step toward predicting the future should be to acknowledge our limitations. Or–at the very least–let’s start small. For instance: if I could tell you what kind of music I like, and then you could predict for me some other music I’d want to hear. That actually already exists. It’s called Pandora Radio. Here’s co-founder Tim Westergren.

Tim WESTERGREN: So, what we’ve done is, we’ve broken down recordings into their basic components for every dimension of melody, harmony, and rhythm, and form, and instrumentation, down into kind of the musical equivalent of primary colors.

DUBNER: The Pandora database includes more than a million songs, across every genre that you or I could name. Each song is broken down into as many as 480 musical attributes, almost like genetic code. Pandora’s organizing system is in fact called the “Music Genome Project.” You tell the Pandora website a song you like, and it rummages through that massive genetic database to make an educated guess about what you want to hear next. If you like that song, you press the thumbs-up button, and Pandora takes note.

WESTERGREN: I wouldn’t make the claim that Pandora can map your emotional persona. And I also don’t think frankly that Pandora can predict a hit because I think it is very hard, it’s a bit of a magic, that’s what makes music so fantastic. So, I think that we know our limitations, but within those limitations I think that we make it much, much more likely that you’re going to find that song that just really touches you.

DUBNER: So Tim, you were good enough to set up a station for me here. It’s called “Train in Vain Radio.” So the song we gave you was “Train in Vain.” So let me open up my radio station here and I’ll hit play and see what you got for me.


DUBNER: Oh yeah. Yeah I like them, that’s The Jam, so I’m going to give it a thumbs up I like “Town Called Malice.” .on my little window here. I think there are a couple more songs in my station here.


“Television” by Tom Verlaine, he was always too cool for me. I can see why you would think that I would like them, and I appreciate your effort, Mr. Pandora. How about you, were you a “Television” fan?

WESTERGREN: Yeah, yeah. And you know, one thing of course is that the songs are all rooted in guitar riffs.


WESTERGREN: There’s a repetitive motif played on the guitar. And a similar sound and they’ve got a little twang– and they’re played kind of rambly, a little bit rough, there’s a sort of punk element in there. The vocals have over twenty attributes just for the voice. In this case these are pretty unpolished vocal deliveries.

DUBNER: I got to tell you that even though when this song came up, and I’ve heard this song a few times, and I told you I didn’t like Television very much, this song, I’m kind of digging it now.

WESTERGREN: See, there you go, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

DUBNER: So, it’s a really great thing to do, but it’s not really predicting the future the way most people think of it as predicting the future, is it?

WESTERGREN: Well, I certainly wouldn’t have put our mission in the same category as predicting the economy, or, you know, geopolitical futures. But you know, the average American listens to 17 hours of music a week. So, they spend a lot of time doing it, and I think that if we can make that a more enjoyable experience and more personalized, I think maybe we’ll make some kind of meaningful contribution to culture.

DUBNER: So Pandora does a pretty good job of predicting the music you might want to hear, based on what you already know you like. But again, look how much effort that takes — 480 musical attributes! And it’s not really predicting the future, is it? All Pandora does is breaks down the confirmed musical preferences of one person today and comes up with some more music that’ll fulfill that same person’s preferences tomorrow. If we really want to know the future, we probably need to get much more ambitious. We probably need a whole new model. Like, how about prediction markets?

Robin HANSON: A prediction market is basically like a betting market or a speculative market, like orange juice futures or stock markets, things like that. The mechanics is that there’s a — an asset of some sort that pays off if something’s true, like whether a, a person wins the presidency or a team wins a sporting contest. And people trade that asset and the price of that asset becomes then a forecast of whether that claim is likely to be true.

DUBNER: That’s Robin Hanson, an economics professor at George Mason University and an admitted advocate of prediction markets. As Hanson sees it, a prediction market is far more reliable than other forecasting methods because it addresses the pesky incentive problems of the old-time prediction industry.

HANSON: So a prediction market gives people an incentive, a clear personal incentive to be right and not wrong. Equally important, it gives people an incentive to shut up when they don’t know, which is often a problem with many of our other institutions. So if you as a reporter call up almost any academic and and ask them vaguely related questions, they’ll typically try to answer them, just because they want to be heard. But in a prediction market most people don’t speak up. Every one of your listeners today had the right to go speak up on orange juice futures yesterday. Every one of you could have gone and said, orange juice futures forecasts are too low or too high, and almost no one did. Why? Because most of you don’t think you know. And that’s just the way we want it.So in most of these prediction markets what we want is the few people who know the best to speak up and everybody else to shut up.

DUBNER: Prediction markets are flourishing. Some of them are private — a multinational firm might set up an internal market to try to forecast when a big project will be done. And there are for-profit prediction markets like InTrade, based in Dublin, where you can place a bet on, say, whether any country that currently uses the Euro will drop the Euro by the end of the year. (As I speak, that bet has a 15% chance on InTrade.) Here’s another InTrade bet: whether there’ll be a successful WMD terrorist attack anywhere in the world by the end of 2013. (That’s got a 28% chance.) Now that’s starting to sound a little edgy, no? Betting on terrorism? Robin Hanson himself has a little experience in this area, on a U.S. government project he worked on.

HANSON: All right, so — back in 2000, DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, had heard about prediction markets, and they decided to fund a research project. And they basically said, listen, we’ve heard this is useful for other things, we’d like you to show us that this can be useful for the kind of topics we are interested in. Our project was going to be forecasting geopolitical trends in the Middle East. We were going to show that prediction markets could tell you about economic growth, about riots, about perhaps wars, about whether the changes of heads of state… and how these things would interact with each other.

DUBNER: In 2003, just as the project was about to go live, the press heard about it.

HANSON: On Monday morning two senators had a press conference where they declared that the — DARPA, the — and the military were going to have a betting market on terrorism.

HANSON: And so, there was a sudden burst of media coverage and by the very next morning the head of the military basically declared before the Senate that this project was dead, and there was nothing more to worry about.

DUBNER: What do you think you — we collectively, you, in particular — would know now about that part of the world, let’s say, if this market had been allowed to take root?

HANSON: Well, I think we would have gotten much earlier warning about the revolutions we just had. And if we would have had participants from the Middle East forecasting those markets. Not only we would get advanced warning about which things might happen, but then how our actions could affect those. So, for example, the United States just came in on the side of the Libyan rebels, to support the Libya rebels against the Qaddafi regime. What’s the chances that will actually help the situation, as opposed to make it worse?

DUBNER: But give me an example of what you consider among the hardest problems that a prediction market could potentially help solve?

HANSON: Who should — not only who should we elect for president but whether we should go to war here or whether we should begin this initiative? Or should we approve this reform bill for medicine, etc.

DUBNER: So that sounds very logical, very appealing. How realistic is it?

HANSON: Well, it depends on there being a set of customers who want this product. So, you know, if prediction markets have an Achilles heel, it’s certainly the possibility that people don’t really want accurate forecasts.

DUBNER: Prediction markets put a price on accountability. If you’re wrong, you pay, simple as that. Just like the proposed law against the witches in Romania. Maybe that’s what we need more of. Here’s Steve Levitt again:

LEVITT: When there are big rewards to people who make predictions and get them right, and there are zero punishments for people who make bad predictions because they’re immediately forgotten, then economists would predict that’s a recipe for getting people to make predictions all the time.

DUBNER: Because the incentives are all encouraging you to make predictions.

LEVITT: Absolutely.

DUBNER: If you get it right there’s an upside, and if you get it wrong there’s almost no downside.

LEVITT: Right, if the flipside were that if I make a false prediction I’m immediately sent to prison for a one-year term, there would be almost no prediction.

DUBNER: And all those football pundits and political pundits and financial pundits wouldn’t be able to wriggle out of their bad calls — saying “My idea was right, but my timing was wrong.” Maybe that’s how everybody does it. That big storm the weatherman called but never showed up? “Oh, it happened all right,” he says, “but two states over.” Or how about those predictions for the End of the World — the Apocalypse, the Rapture, all that? “Well,” they say, “we prayed so hard that God decided to spare us.”

Remember back in May, when an 89-year-old preacher named Harold Camping declared that the Earth would be destroyed at 5:59 p.m. on a Saturday, and only the true believers would survive? I remember it very well because my 10-year-old son was petrified. I tried telling him that Camping was a kook — that anybody can say pretty much anything they want about the future. It didn’t help; he couldn’t get to sleep at night.

And then the 21st came and went and he was psyched. “I knew it all along, Dad,” he said.

Then I asked him what he thought should happen to Harold Camping, the false Doomsday prophet. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “Off with his head!”

My son is not a bloodthirsty type. But he’s not a turkey either.

Should Bad Predictions Be Punished? (


08/09/2011 | 8:33 pm

Government corn predictions are based on the work of people like Phil Friedrichs, gathering data in a corn field in Hiawatha, Kansas. (Photo: Stephen Koranda)

What do Wall Street forecasters and Romanian witches have in common? They usually get away, scot-free, with making bad predictions. Our world is awash in poor prediction — but for some reason, we can’t stop, even though accuracy rates often barely beat a coin toss.

But then there’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s crop forecasting. Predictions covering a big crop like corn (U.S. farmers have planted the second largest crop since WWII this year) usually fall within five percent of the actual yield. So how do they do it? Every year, the U.S.D.A. sends thousands of enumerators into cornfields across the country where they inspect the plants, the conditions, and even “animal loss.”

This week on Marketplace, Stephen J. Dubner and Kai Ryssdal talk about the supply and demand of predictions. You’ll hear from Joseph Prusacki, the head of U.S.D.A’s Statistics Division, who’s gearing up for his first major crop report of 2011 (the street is already “sweating” it); Phil Friedrichs, who collects cornfield data for the USDA; and our trusted economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt.

We’ll also hear from journalist Vlad Mixich in Bucharest, who tells us why those Romanian witchesmight not be getting away with bad fortune telling for much longer.

An Algorithm that Can Predict Weather a Year in Advance (


09/27/2011 | 3:51 pm

In our latest podcast, “The Folly of Prediction,” we poke fun at the whole notion of forecasting. The basic gist is: whether it’s Romanian witches or Wall Street quant wizards, though we love to predict things — we’re generally terrible at it. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript here.)

But there is one emerging tool that’s greatly enhancing our ability to predict: algorithms. Toward the end of the podcast, Dubner talks to Tim Westergren, a co-founder of Pandora Radio, about how the company’s algorithm is able to predict what kind of music people want to hear, by breaking songs down to their basic components. We’ve written a lot about algorithms, and the potential they have to vastly change our life through customization, and perhaps satisfy our demand for predictions with some robust results.

One of the first things that comes to mind when people hear the word forecasting is the weather. Over the last few decades, we’ve gotten much better at predicting the weather. But what if through algorithms, we could extend our range of accuracy, and say, predict the weather up to a year in advance? That’d be pretty cool, right? And probably worth a bit of money too.

That’s essentially what the folks at a small company called Weather Trends International are doing. The private firm based in Bethlehem, PA, uses technology first developed in the early 1990s, to project temperature, precipitation and snowfall trends up to a year ahead, all around the world, with more than 80% accuracy. Translation: they gather up tons and tons of data, literally as much historical information on weather around the world as is out there, and then cram it into some 5.5 million lines of proprietary computer code (their algorithm) to spit out weather forecasts up to a year in advance. This is fairly different from what most meteorologists do by modeling the atmosphere. “Only about 15% of what we do is traditional forecast meteorology,” says CEO Bill Kirk, a former U.S. Air Force Captain with a degree from Rutgers in meteorology. Kirk began working on the WTI algorithm while in the Air Force.

Since launching in 2003, WTI has carved out a nice business for itself by marketing weather predictions to a range of clients, from commercial retailers and manufacturers (Wal-Mart, Target, Anheuser-Busch, Johnson & Johnson), to financial services firms and commodity traders– all of whom depend on the weather. Consumption of beer, for example, varies greatly with the temperature. “For every 1 degree hotter it is, Anheuser-Busch sells 1 percent more product,” says Kirk. And since beer is often made and bottled months in advance, the sooner they can know how hot it will be in May, the sooner they can plan accordingly. Unlike a lot of professional predictors, WTI’s business model has a built-in incentive structure: “Our clients are making multi-million dollar decisions based on our forecasts. If we’re not right, they’re not coming back.”

Though a trained meteorologist, Kirk says that over the last several years, he’s learned a lot about what really drives weather. He talks at length about the phenomenon known as Pacific decadal oscillation, which holds that the Pacific Ocean cycles through periods of warm and cold temperatures lasting about 30 years each. From 1976, to roughly 2006, the Pacific was in a warm phase, but is now cooling. Kirk believes that it’s this change that’s behind much of the bizarre weather we’ve seen over the last few years, from record snowfall and tornado activity, to droughts in the South, to floods in Australia. “The PDO cycles used to be a footnote in climate reports,” says Kirk. “Now we see them as playing a prominent role in determining weather patterns.”

Kirk is now trying to market his long-range forecasting to the private sector with a new website,Weathertrends360, as well as a new app. They both allow you to get a day-by-day forecast all the way through August 2012. Here’s his forecast for New York City over the next two months:

Just for kicks, I’ll check in from time to time to see how accurate the WTI forecasts end up being.

Freakonomics Poll: When It Comes to Predictions, Whom Do You Trust? (


09/16/2011 | 11:27 am

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “The Folly of Prediction,” is built around the premise that humans love to predict the future, but are generally terrible at it. (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

There are a host of professions built around predicting some future outcome: from predicting the score of a sports match, to forecasting the weather for the weekend, to being able to tell what the stock market is going to do tomorrow. But is anyone actually good at it?

From your experience, which experts do you trust for predictions?

  • None of the Above (39%, 447 Votes)
  • Meteorologists (37%, 414 Votes)
  • Economists (14%, 158 Votes)
  • Sports Experts (9%, 98 Votes)
  • Political Pundits (1%, 16 Votes)
  • Stock Market Analysts (1%, 10 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,132

The Revolution Begins at Home: An Open Letter to Join the Wall Street Occupation (The Independent)

Arun Gupta
September 28, 2011

(Photo courtesy of 

What is occurring on Wall Street right now is truly remarkable. For over 10 days, in the sanctum of the great cathedral of global capitalism, the dispossessed have liberated territory from the financial overlords and their police army.

They have created a unique opportunity to shift the tides of history in the tradition of other great peaceful occupations from the sit-down strikes of the 1930s to the lunch-counter sit-ins of the 1960s to the democratic uprisings across the Arab world and Europe today.

While the Wall Street occupation is growing, it needs an all-out commitment from everyone who cheered the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, said “We are all Wisconsin,” and stood in solidarity with the Greeks and Spaniards. This is a movement for anyone who lacks a job, housing or healthcare, or thinks they have no future.

Our system is broken at every level. More than 25 million Americans are unemployed. More than 50 million live without health insurance. And perhaps 100 million Americans are mired in poverty, using realistic measures. Yet the fat cats continue to get tax breaks and reap billions while politicians compete to turn the austerity screws on all of us.

At some point the number of people occupying Wall Street – whether that’s five thousand, ten thousand or fifty thousand – will force the powers that be to offer concessions. No one can say how many people it will take or even how things will change exactly, but there is a real potential for bypassing a corrupt political process and to begin realizing a society based on human needs not hedge fund profits.

After all, who would have imagined a year ago that Tunisians and Egyptians would oust their dictators?

At Liberty Park, the nerve center of the occupation, more than a thousand people gather every day to debate, discuss and organize what to do about our failed system that has allowed the 400 richest Americans at the top to amass more wealth than the 180 million Americans at the bottom.

It’s astonishing that this self-organized festival of democracy has sprouted on the turf of the masters of the universe, the men who play the tune that both political parties and the media dance to. The New York Police Department, which has deployed hundreds of officers at a time to surround and intimidate protesters, is capable of arresting everyone and clearing Liberty Plaza in minutes. But they haven’t, which is also astonishing.

That’s because assaulting peaceful crowds in a public square demanding real democracy – economic and not just political – would remind the world of the brittle autocrats who brutalized their people demanding justice before they were swept away by the Arab Spring. And the state violence has already backfired. After police attacked a Saturday afternoon march that started from Liberty Park the crowds only got bigger and media interest grew.

The Wall Street occupation has already succeeded in revealing the bankruptcy of the dominant powers – the economic, the political, media and security forces. They have nothing positive to offer humanity, not that they ever did for the Global South, but now their quest for endless profits means deepening the misery with a thousand austerity cuts.

Even their solutions are cruel jokes. They tell us that the “Buffett Rule” would spread the pain by asking the penthouse set to sacrifice a tin of caviar, which is what the proposed tax increase would amount to. Meanwhile, the rest of us will have to sacrifice healthcare, food, education, housing, jobs and perhaps our lives to sate the ferocious appetite of capital.

That’s why more and more people are joining the Wall Street occupation. They can tell you about their homes being foreclosed upon, months of grinding unemployment or minimum-wage dead-end jobs, staggering student debt loads, or trying to live without decent healthcare. It’s a whole generation of Americans with no prospects, but who are told to believe in a system that can only offer them Dancing With The Stars and pepper spray to the face.

Yet against every description of a generation derided as narcissistic, apathetic and hopeless they are staking a claim to a better future for all of us.

That’s why we all need to join in. Not just by liking it on Facebook, signing a petition at or retweeting protest photos, but by going down to the occupation itself.

There is great potential here. Sure, it’s a far cry from Tahrir Square or even Wisconsin. But there is the nucleus of a revolt that could shake America’s power structure as much as the Arab world has been upended.

Instead of one to two thousand people a day joining in the occupation there needs to be tens of thousands of people protesting the fat cats driving Bentleys and drinking thousand-dollar bottles of champagne with money they looted from the financial crisis and then from the bailouts while Americans literally die on the streets.

To be fair, the scene in Liberty Plaza seems messy and chaotic. But it’s also a laboratory of possibility, and that’s the beauty of democracy. As opposed to our monoculture world, where political life is flipping a lever every four years, social life is being a consumer and economic life is being a timid cog, the Wall Street occupation is creating a polyculture of ideas, expression and art.

Yet while many people support the occupation, they hesitate to fully join in and are quick to offer criticism. It’s clear that the biggest obstacles to building a powerful movement are not the police or capital – it’s our own cynicism and despair.

Perhaps their views were colored by the New York Times article deriding protestors for wishing to “pantomime progressivism” and “Gunning for Wall Street with faulty aim.” Many of the criticisms boil down to “a lack of clear messaging.”

But what’s wrong with that? A fully formed movement is not going to spring from the ground. It has to be created. And who can say what exactly needs to be done? We are not talking about ousting a dictator; though some say we want to oust the dictatorship of capital.

There are plenty of sophisticated ideas out there: end corporate personhood; institute a “Tobin Tax” on stock purchases and currency trading; nationalize banks; socialize medicine; fully fund government jobs and genuine Keynesian stimulus; lift restrictions on labor organizing; allow cities to turn foreclosed homes into public housing; build a green energy infrastructure.

But how can we get broad agreement on any of these? If the protesters came into the square with a pre-determined set of demands it would have only limited their potential. They would have either been dismissed as pie in the sky – such as socialized medicine or nationalize banks – or if they went for weak demands such as the Buffett Rule their efforts would immediately be absorbed by a failed political system, thus undermining the movement.

That’s why the building of the movement has to go hand in hand with common struggle, debate and radical democracy. It’s how we will create genuine solutions that have legitimacy. And that is what is occurring down at Wall Street.

Now, there are endless objections one can make. But if we focus on the possibilities, and shed our despair, our hesitancy and our cynicism, and collectively come to Wall Street with critical thinking, ideas and solidarity we can change the world.

How many times in your life do you get a chance to watch history unfold, to actively participate in building a better society, to come together with thousands of people where genuine democracy is the reality and not a fantasy?

For too long our minds have been chained by fear, by division, by impotence. The one thing the elite fear most is a great awakening. That day is here. Together we can seize it.

Cirurgias plásticas reforçam ideal do corpo como capital social (Fapesp)

Pesquisa FAPESP
Edição 187 – Setembro 2011

Humanidades > Antropologia
A economia das aparências

Carlos Haag

“A cirurgia plástica é um crime contra a religião e os bons costumes. Mudar a cara que Deus nos deu, cortar a pele, coser os peitos e quem sabe o que mais, vade retro.” É assim que Ponciana, personagem do romance Tereza Batista cansada de guerra, de Jorge Amado, reage ao ver a vizinha, dona Beatriz, “renovada”, com “rosto liso, sem rugas nem papo, seios altos aparentando não mais de trinta fogosas primaveras, num total descaramento, a glorificação ambulante da medicina moderna”. Imagine–se como ela reagiria hoje, ao saber da pesquisa recente do Ibope em conjunto com a Sociedade Brasileira de Cirurgia Plástica (SBCP): no Brasil a cada minuto é realizada uma operação plástica, 1.700 por dia, um total anual de 645 mil, que só nos deixa atrás dos Estados Unidos, com 1,5 milhão de cirurgias. Das intervenções nacionais, 65% são só cosméticas e as mulheres são as maiores clientes: 82%. A preferência nacional é pela lipo (30%), seguida pela prótese de silicone (21%). Nos últimos cinco anos aumentou em 30% a procura da plástica estética também pelos homens.

“O que fez a plástica virar quase obrigação, com uma demanda crescente em todas as regiões e segmentos sociais? O país é o único que oferece plásticas pelo sistema público de saúde (15% do total) e clínicas particulares têm até carnês de prestações”, diz o antropólogo americano Alexander Edmonds, da Universidade de Amsterdã e autor de Pretty modern: beauty, sex and plastic surgery in Brazil, recém-lançado nos EUA pela Duke University Press. “No Brasil não basta ser magra. A mulher tem que ser sarada, definida, sensual. Mais do que boa mãe, profissional competente e esposa cuidadosa, ela tem que enfrentar o ‘quarto turno’ da academia, correndo atrás de um corpo sempre inatingível. O maior algoz da mulher brasileira é ela mesma, que vive procurando aprovação de outras mulheres. Temos que pensar numa mulher que comporte falhas, não criminalize seu corpo por fugir aos padrões e que aproveite momentos como a maternidade sem querer voltar às pressas à forma anterior”, explica Joana de Vilhena Moraes, coordenadora do Núcleo de Doenças da Beleza da Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio (PUC-Rio) e autora de Com que corpo eu vou? Sociabilidade e usos do corpo nas mulheres das camadas altas e populares (Editora Pallas/PUC–Rio), livro que traz os resultados de uma pesquisa financiada pela Faperj sobre os padrões estéticos em diferentes camadas sociais. “Descobrimos que, se a procura do corpo perfeito é democrática, desejo de mulheres ricas ou pobres, há diferentes conceitos de beleza. Entre as ricas, qualquer sacrifício vale a pena para ganhar a magreza das modelos. Entre as mais pobres, o bonito mesmo é o corpo farto e curvilíneo das dançarinas de pagode. O que diverge entre os grupos é o sofrimento: as ricas se escondem sob roupas largas; as pobres exibem a gordura sem pudor em microshorts e tops justos.” Segundo ela, isso não impede que também malhem e fiquem nas filas dos hospitais públicos para fazer plástica estética. “A mídia, com apoio do discurso médico, estimula que as mulheres recorram a esses expedientes que evitam a constatação das mudanças da sua subjetividade, valendo-se, para isso, do estágio atual de evolução das ciências biotecnológicas, nas quais o país é respeitado globalmente.”

Curiosamente, segundo Edmonds, por muito tempo a cirurgia cosmética não foi vista como medicina legítima e para ganhar a aceitação precisou ser transformada em “cura”, aliando-se à psicologia: conceitos como “complexo de inferioridade” deram à operação um fundamento terapêutico. “O cirurgião Ivo Pitanguy foi o responsável por diluir os limites entre as cirurgias estética e reparadora, já que ambas curariam a psique. Para ele, o cirurgião plástico seria um ‘psicólogo com bisturi’ e o objeto terapêutico real da operação não seria o corpo, mas a mente”, nota o americano. Mas há consequências sobre a profissão. “A saúde é, agora, um guarda-chuva simbólico e não se restringe a permanecer na normalidade médica: é cuidar da forma, do peso, da aparência. A ‘saúde’ se estetizou”, analisa Francisco Romão Ferreira, professor do PGEBS (Programa de Pós-Graduação no Ensino de Biociências na Saúde do IOC/Fiocruz) e autor da pesquisa Os sentidos do corpo – Cirurgias estéticas, discurso médico e saúde pública. “Há uma pseudodemocratização da tecnologia que leva as pessoas a pensar que o processo é simples e com poucos riscos, e recém-formados em medicina migram para esse filão do mercado, que faz com que esses profissionais alertem para a banalização das cirurgias. É uma ruptura com a medicina tradicional que tem no corpo seu campo de ação. Essa medicina, ao contrário, se inscreve na superfície do corpo, com critérios subjetivos fora dele. A doença é criada artificialmente no âmbito da cultura, fora do corpo, mas que começa a fazer parte dele.”

“A beleza física ligou-se ao imaginário nacional e global do Brasil e é impossível conceber a identidade brasileira sem um componente estético, uma ‘cidadania cosmética’ que não significa direitos reais, mas forma de reproduzir desigualdades sociais e estruturais”, afirma o antropólogo Alvaro Jarrin, da Duke University, autor da pesquisa Cosmetic citizenship: beauty and social inequality in Brazil. É o que Edmonds chama de “saúde estética”, uma mistura de direito à saúde com consumismo. “Se o povo não realizou sua cidadania, ao menos pode se ‘refazer’ como ‘cidadão cosmético’. Os socialmente excluídos viram ‘sofredores estéticos’. A saúde sempre foi vista como bela; no Brasil, a beleza se transformou em saudável.” Para Jarrin, Pitanguy entendeu essa necessidade dos pobres por uma cidadania da beleza ao criar o primeiro serviço de cirurgia plástica popular num hospital-escola, ganhando apoio do Estado como um serviço filantrópico. “O governo é cúmplice e capitaliza indiretamente o sucesso do desenvolvimento das cirurgias de beleza”, nota. “O direito à cirurgia cosmética nunca foi diretamente autorizado pelo SUS, mas, por redefinições engenhosas do que é saúde, médicos fazem plásticas cosméticas em hospitais públicos, onde podem praticar com poucos riscos de processos por erros, desenvolvendo o ‘estilo brasileiro’, exportado para todo o mundo”, acredita Edmonds.

“Assim, as representações do corpo da mulher brasileira não são mais pela ‘verdadeira natureza perdida’, expressão da mistura das raças, mas produto da associação entre essa noção antiga e as técnicas mais modernas, uma intimidade perigosa entre prótese e carne. Num país cuja imagem é a ‘beleza natural’, a valorização das técnicas cirúrgicas dos médicos brasileiros é um paradoxo”, avalia a historiadora Denise Bernuzzi de Sant’Anna, coordenadora do grupo de pesquisa A Condição Corporal, da PUC-SP, e autora de Corpos de passagem: ensaios sobre a subjetividade contemporânea. “Mas a liberdade de construir o próprio corpo não escapa a exigências como ser jovem e a obsessão pela alegria sem escalas e em curtíssimo prazo, em que cada um é responsável pelo sucesso ou fracasso em função do culto ao corpo ou seu descuido”, avalia. “O problema não é o cuidado de si, mas fazer do corpo um território que dispensa o contato com quem é diferente de nós; não gostar de alguém pelo seu corpo.” Uma segregação com objetivos definidos. “Sofrer para ter um corpo ‘em forma’ é recompensado pela gratificação de pertencer a um grupo de ‘valor superior’. O corpo identifica a pessoa a um grupo e o distingue de outros. Este corpo ‘trabalhado’, ‘malhado’, ‘sarado’, é, hoje, um sinal indicativo de certa virtude. Sob a moral da boa forma, ‘trabalhar’ o corpo é um ato de significação como se vestir. Ele, como as roupas, é um símbolo que torna visível as diferenças entre grupos sociais”, observa a antropóloga Mirian Goldenberg, professora da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), autora de O corpo como capital e que analisou o fenômeno na pesquisa Mudanças nos papéis de gênero, sexualidade e conjugalidade, apoiada pelo CNPq.

“No Brasil, o corpo é um capital, um modelo de riqueza, a mais desejada pelos indivíduos das camadas médias e das mais pobres, que percebem o corpo como um importante veículo de ascensão social e como capital no mercado de trabalho, no mercado de casamento e no mercado sexual. A busca do corpo ‘sarado’ é, para os adeptos do culto à beleza, uma luta contra a morte simbólica imposta aos que não se disciplinam e se enquadram aos padrões.” Com direito a sutilezas geográficas. “Em São Paulo há a cultura do light, mas a roupa ainda é o adereço importante. No Rio há um desvelamento do corpo. Quando perguntaram a Adriane Galisteu como ela sabia a hora de fechar a boca ela disse: ‘Se me chamarem de gostosa na rua, sei que estou gorda’. Esse é o pensamento carioca”, diz Joana. Todos, porém, querem ser bem avaliados pelos pares. “Uma mulher gorda na classe média e alta é motivo de escárnio. Na favela, ela não precisa se livrar dos recheios para ser admirada. As mais pobres gastam mais energia em garantir direitos básicos de sobrevivência, coisas que para a mulher mais rica estão resolvidas. Pelo menos nessa relação com o corpo as moradoras de favela são mais felizes”, conta.

Em sua pesquisa, Joana descobriu que as mulheres das classes mais abastadas usam um discurso mais sofisticado, individualista, dizendo que fazem sacrifícios, como plásticas e malhação, para elas mesmas. Prova de uma relação tensa com o espelho: nunca se justifica o “trabalho” do corpo como querer ser um objeto de mais desejo. “Nas favelas, elas dizem claramente que fazem as intervenções para ‘ficar gostosas’, numa sexualidade vivida de maneira mais plena”, observa. O que não significa que as mulheres mais pobres não se percebam mais cheinhas e estejam satisfeitas com seus corpos, pois têm acesso à informação, leem revistas, veem a mesma novela que as mulheres mais ricas. “A diferença é que elas não estão aprisionadas nesse processo. Privação e disciplina são valores máximos das classes altas. Nas classes populares, a privação é associada à pobreza, e a gordura à prosperidade. Uma mulher da favela me disse que não ia ‘viver de alface’ porque iam achar que estava na miséria.”

Mas, para desgosto de Gilberto Freyre, que via a beleza brasileira na mulher de seios pequenos e glúteos grandes, Brasil e EUA, hoje, compartilham ideais corpóreos. Uma obsessão americana, o aumento das mamas está em alta aqui desde os anos 1980, a ponto de a capa da revista Time (julho de 2001) trazer a cantora Carla Perez com seios proeminentes, nos moldes das mulheres americanas, com a pergunta se o novo “busto tropical” não seria um “imperialismo cultural”. Mas há diferenças. Um estudo da Sociedade Internacional de Cirurgia Plástica Estética (Isaps, na sigla em inglês) afirma que as brasileiras querem seios maiores, mas também nádegas grandes com quadris esculpidos, em busca do corpo “brasileiro” curvilíneo. Para Bárbara Machado, chefe da equipe médica da clínica Pitanguy, a redução de seios era mais popular, mas, com o aumento da segurança das próteses e os ícones de beleza com seios maiores, a brasileira optou por mamas maiores, sem, no entanto, abrir mão das curvas.

Mera futilidade? Edmonds observa que a beleza é fundamental até no mercado de trabalho. “A aparência, cor e apelo sexual ‘adicionam valor’ ao serviço ou são critérios de seleção. Mulheres e homens atrativos têm maiores salários, pois o trabalhador vira parte do produto oferecido ao consumidor.” A cultura do corpo também é a cultura da produtividade. “A aparência fala sobre seu caráter. Se você souber gerenciar bem seu corpo, a leitura que é feita do seu caráter é que você sabe viver, é bom profissional, não é desleixado e administra sua vida de forma competente”, diz Joana. “As mulheres, porém, precisam pensar num outro modelo de pessoa bem-sucedida, porque o atual está levando as pessoas a um adoecimento extremo, já que há um acúmulo descomunal de tarefas, fruto do feminismo, que deu liberdade para a mulher trabalhar sem levar em conta que ela precisaria, também, ser linda e esbelta.” As conquistas feministas adquirem outro significado na modernidade plástica. “A tirania dos ideais de beleza foi explorado pelas feministas nos anos 1970. Mas agora a luta das mulheres para melhorar a aparência é legitimada como vitória do feminismo e já se aceita o egoísmo sadio do prazer de cuidar de si, um orgulho de exibir em público corpos desejáveis. É preciso evitar o otimismo imprudente. A plástica permite a aquisição de capacidades novas, mas o uso das tecnologias tem um efeito perverso nas mulheres: ocultar os efeitos da velhice é promover a reprodução das desigualdades”, analisa Guita Grin Debert, professora titular do Departamento de Antropologia da Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), autora da pesquisa Velhice e tecnologias de rejuvenescimento (apoiada pela FAPESP).

Entre os efeitos está o “ataque” à maternidade. “A retórica da indústria é da liberdade do destino biológico, mas permanecem as tensões entre ser mãe e continuar um ser sexual. A cirurgia acirra o conflito, pois permitiria, teoricamente, à mulher ser mãe e continuar a ter apelo sexual, corrigindo os ‘defeitos’ provocados pela maternidade no corpo pós-parto e na anatomia vaginal”, observa Edmonds. Ou, nas palavras de Diana Zuckerman, do Centro Nacional de Pesquisa de Mulheres e Famílias, dos EUA: “O sonho dos homens de marketing é fazer as mulheres acreditarem que seus corpos ficam repugnantes após o nascimento de um filho”. “A medicalização do corpo pelas cirurgias não se legitima pelo discurso biológico do passado cuja beleza ideal do corpo da mulher proveria da maternidade, com o corpo arredondado, volumoso, ancas desenvolvidas e seios generosos. Agora tudo se baseia no discurso ‘psi’, que traz uma submissão à ordem médica ao afirmar o desejo de possuir um ‘corpo perfeito’ em função da autoestima. Nesse discurso, tudo se explica na ênfase da interioridade, o que leva as pessoas a justificar a necessidade de todos se adequarem a modelos estéticos por causa da autoestima”, analisa a antropóloga Liliane Brum Ribeiro, autora da pesquisa A medicalização da diferença. Essa preocupação antecipa-se cada vez mais e atinge os adolescentes, que se “preparam” para o futuro corrigindo “defeitos” de seus corpos jovens e, acima de tudo, aumentando o seu apelo sexual. Daí o crescimento no percentual de jovens operados, na faixa dos 19 anos (25% do total). “A cirurgia coloca as mulheres em competição por mais tempo e mesmo as diferenças geracionais desaparecem com mães e filhas ‘lutando’ entre si por homens, aumentando ainda mais o ‘valor de mercado’ da aparência de juventude”, nota o americano.

Se os adolescentes foram sexualizados, os mais velhos também sofrem com isso. “A cirurgia significa ‘continuar competitivo’ em qualquer idade. No passado, uma mulher de 40 anos se sentia velha e feia, pronta a ser trocada por uma mais jovem ou condenada à solidão. Agora essa mulher está no mercado competindo com a menina de 20 anos graças à plástica”, diz Edmonds. A plástica trouxe, assim, mudanças culturais intensas. “A partir dos anos 1960, a mulher feia era acusada de o ser por não se amar. Ser moderna virou cultivo da aparência bela e do bem-estar corporal. Recusar a beleza é sinal de negligência a ser combatido, um problema psíquico solucionado pela plástica”, observa Liliane. Os impactos são fortes sobre os idosos. “A cirurgia é uma forma de fugir das marcas do tempo, desnaturalizando processos normais e impedindo que a natureza siga seu destino. Transforma-se a velhice numa questão de negligência corporal, negando os constrangimentos dados pelos limites biológicos do corpo”, avalia Guita. “O envelhecimento é o monstro que a medicina tenta combater. Não é para banir cirurgias, mas não se deve restringir a velhice a um ‘desequilíbrio hormonal’, equipará-la a uma doença, uma questão estética, magicamente resolvida com operação, o que só repete a antiga forma de controle sobre a mulher”, analisa Joana.

Afinal, como observou Guita, há uma tendência a transformar a velhice numa questão de negligência corporal e os médicos se empenham em estimular os idosos a adotarem estratégias para combater as marcas do envelhecimento, negando os constrangimentos dados pelos limites biológicos do corpo. “As operações mostram a aversão ao diferente, e a cirurgia é uma tentativa de fugir das marcas do tempo, desnaturalizando processos naturais, e impedir que a natureza siga o seu destino”, avisa a antropóloga. “A aversão ao corpo envelhecido organiza as tecnologias de rejuvenescimento. Os ideais de perfeição corporal encantam a mídia, mas todos sabem que é uma imagem que jamais se pode atingir. É a materialidade do corpo envelhecido que se transforma em norma pela qual o corpo vivido é julgado e suas possibilidades restringidas.” Com o crescimento de pessoas velhas na população, o mercado se esmera em mostrar como devem os jovens de idade avançada se comportar para reparar as marcas do envelhecimento. “Essa projeção do corpo jovem na materialidade do envelhecido e a negação do curso natural impedem a criação de uma estética da velhice”, nota Guita. Mirian Goldenberg, numa pesquisa recente feita na Alemanha sobre a visão do envelhecimento, encontrou diferenças sintomáticas. “Observando a aparência de alemãs e brasileiras, as últimas parecem mais jovens e em melhor forma, mas se sentem subjetivamente mais velhas e desvalorizadas do que as primeiras. Essa avaliação equivocada me fez perceber que, aqui, a velhice é um problema grande, o que explica o enorme sacrifício que muitas fazem para parecer mais jovens”, avalia Mirian. “Elas constroem seus discursos enfatizando as faltas que sentem, não suas conquistas objetivas. A liberdade das brasileiras aparece como conquista tardia após terem cumprido seus papéis de mãe e esposa. Na nossa cultura, em que o corpo é um capital importante, envelhecer é vivenciado como um momento de grandes perdas (de capital), de falta de homem e de invisibilidade social, na contramão do que sentem as mulheres alemãs mais velhas, que valorizam menos a aparência do que as novas experiências, a realização profissional e a qualidade de vida”, conta a antropóloga.

Nem tudo, porém, são espinhos nas cirurgias estéticas. “Há um elemento democratizante nisso tudo. A plástica, ao enfatizar o corpo nu, em detrimento de roupas e ornamentos, naturaliza e ‘biologiza’ o corpo, já que, nesse estado, ele é menos legível como um ‘corpo social’”, analisa Edmonds. “Ela incita uma visão da beleza como igualitária, um capital social que não depende de nascimento, educação ou redes sociais para avançar. Quando o acesso à educação é limitado, o corpo, em relação à mente, se transforma numa base importante para a identidade, uma fonte de poder.” Para o antropólogo, é esse contexto cultural que faz o Brasil único no uso da cirurgia plástica. “É um país lembrado pela graça, pela sensualidade e dificilmente pela disciplina. Talvez, por isso, a cirurgia plástica no país não se ligue a uma alienação do corpo, um ódio das formas, mas a um ethos mais bem adaptado à indústria da beleza: o amor compulsório pelo corpo.”

Climatic fluctuations drove key events in human evolution (University of Liverpool)

21-Sep-2011 – University of Liverpool

Research at the University of Liverpool has found that periods of rapid fluctuation in temperature coincided with the emergence of the first distant relatives of human beings and the appearance and spread of stone tools.

Dr Matt Grove from the School of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology reconstructed likely responses of human ancestors to the climate of the past five million years using genetic modelling techniques. When results were mapped against the timeline of human evolution, Dr Grove found that key events coincided with periods of high variability in recorded temperatures.

Dr Grove said: “The study confirmed that a major human adaptive radiation – a pattern whereby the number of coexisting species increases rapidly before crashing again to near previous levels – coincided with an extended period of climatic fluctuation. Following the onset of high climatic variability around 2.7 million years ago a number of new species appear in the fossil record, with most disappearing by 1.5 million years ago. The first stone tools appear at around 2.6 million years ago, and doubtless assisted some of these species in responding to the rapidly changing climatic conditions.

“By 1.5 million years ago we are left with a single human ancestor – Homo erectus. The key to the survival of Homo erectus appears to be its behavioural flexibility – it is the most geographically widespread species of the period, and endures for over one and a half million years. Whilst other species may have specialized in environments that subsequently disappeared – causing their extinction – Homo erectus appears to have been a generalist, able to deal with many climatic and environmental contingencies.”

Dr Grove’s research is the first to explicitly model ‘Variability Selection’, an evolutionary process proposed by Professor Rick Potts in the late 1990s, and supports the pervasive influence of this process during human evolution. Variability selection suggests that evolution, when faced with rapid climatic fluctuation, should respond to the range of habitats encountered rather than to each individual habitat in turn; the timeline of variability selection established by Dr Grove suggests that Homo erectus could be a product of exactly this process.

Linking climatic fluctuation to the evolutionary process has implications for the current global climate change debate. Dr Grove said: “Though often discussed under the banner term of ‘global warming’, what we see in many areas of the world today is in fact an increased annual range of temperatures and conditions; this means in particular that third world human populations, many living in what are already marginal environments, will face ever more difficult situations. The current pattern of human-induced climate change is unlike anything we have seen before, and is disproportionately affecting areas whose inhabitants do not have the technology required to deal with it.”

The research is published in The Journal of Human Evolution and The Journal of Archaeological Science.

Science and religion do mix (Rice University)

9/20/2011 – News & Media Relations

Rice University study reveals only 15 percent of scientists at major research universities see religion and science always in conflict

Throughout history, science and religion have appeared as being in perpetual conflict, but a new study by Rice University suggests that only a minority of scientists at major research universities see religion and science as requiring distinct boundaries.

“When it comes to questions about the meaning of life, ways of understanding reality, origins of Earth and how life developed on it, many have seen religion and science as being at odds and even in irreconcilable conflict,” said Rice sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund. But a majority of scientists interviewed by Ecklund and colleagues viewed both religion and science as “valid avenues of knowledge” that can bring broader understanding to important questions, she said.

Ecklund summarized her findings in “Scientists Negotiate Boundaries Between Religion and Science,” which appears in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Her co-authors were sociologists Jerry Park of Baylor University and Katherine Sorrell, a former postbaccalaureate fellow at Rice and current Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame.

They interviewed a scientifically selected sample of 275 participants, pulled from a survey of 2,198 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the natural and social sciences at 21 elite U.S. research universities. Only 15 percent of those surveyed view religion and science as always in conflict. Another 15 percent say the two are never in conflict, and 70 percent believe religion and science are only sometimes in conflict. Approximately half of the original survey population expressed some form of religious identity, whereas the other half did not.

“Much of the public believes that as science becomes more prominent, secularization increases and religion decreases,” Ecklund said. “Findings like these among elite scientists, who many individuals believe are most likely to be secular in their beliefs, definitely call into question ideas about the relationship between secularization and science.”

Many of those surveyed cited issues in the public realm (teaching of creationism versus evolution, stem cell research) as reasons for believing there is conflict between the two. The study showed that these individuals generally have a particular kind of religion in mind (and religious people and institutions) when they say that religion and science are in conflict.

The study identified three strategies of action used by these scientists to manage the religion-science boundaries and the circumstances that the two could overlap.

  • Redefining categories – Scientists manage the science-religion relationship by changing the definition of religion, broadening it to include noninstitutionalized forms of spirituality.
  • Integration models – Scientists deliberately use the views of influential scientists who they believe have successfully integrated their religious and scientific beliefs.
  • Intentional talk – Scientists actively engage in discussions about the boundaries between science and religion.

“The kind of narrow research available on religion and science seems to ask if they are in conflict or not, when it should really ask the conditions under which they are in conflict,” Ecklund said. “Our research has found that even within the same person, there can be differing views. It’s very important to dispel the myth that people believe that religion and science either do or don’t conflict. Our study found that many people have much more nuanced views.”

These nuanced views often find their way into the classroom, according to those interviewed. One biologist, an atheist not part of any religious tradition, admitted that she makes a sincere effort to present science such that “religious students do not need to compromise their own selves.” Although she is not reconsidering her personal views on religion, she seeks out resources to keep her religious students engaged with science.

Other findings:

  • Scientists as a whole are substantially different from the American public in how they view teaching “intelligent design” in public schools. Nearly all of the scientists – religious and nonreligious alike – have a negative impression of the theory of intelligent design.
  • Sixty-eight percent of scientists surveyed consider themselves spiritual to some degree.
  • Scientists who view themselves as spiritual/religious are less likely to see religion and science in conflict.
  • Overall, under some circumstances even the most religious of scientists were described in very positive terms by their nonreligious peers; this suggests that the integration of religion and science is not so distasteful to all scientists.

Ecklund said the study’s findings will go far in improving the public’s perception of science. “I think it would be helpful for the public to see what scientists are actually saying about these topics, rather than just believe stereotypes,” she said. “It would definitely benefit public dialogue about the relationship between science and religion.”

Ecklund is the author of “Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think,” published by Oxford University Press last year.

The study was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation and additional funding from Rice University.

Gamers crackeiam código que pode gerar novos tratamentos contra AIDS (Gizmodo Brasil)

Por Kwame Opam – 15:56 – 19-09-2011


Os cientistas passaram uma década tentando — e não conseguindo — mapear a estrutura de uma enzima que pode ajudar a resolver uma parte crucial do quebra-cabeça do vírus da AIDS. Um grupo de gamers precisou de apenas três semanas.

A enzima em questão é a protease do vírus dos macacos de Mason-Pfizer, e pesquisadores vêm buscando formas de desativá-lo para assim descobrir novas formas de desenvolver drogas anti-HIV. Infelizmente, os esforços convencionais de computadores e cientistas foram pouco durante anos.

Eis que entra no jogo a Foldit. a Foldit foi desenvolvida em 2008 como forma para descobrir estrutura de várias proteínas e aminoácidos — algo que computadores não sabem fazer muito bem — ao transformar o problema em um jogo. Ao adicionar as coordenadas experimentais à enzima do vírus do macaco, os gamers — vários deles sem nenhum tipo de conhecimento passado em biologia molelucar — foram capazes de prever a estrutura da proteína, permitindo que os cientistas marcassem localizações precisas e parassem o crescimento do vírus.

O estudo, publicado na Nature Structure & Molecular Biology, detalha quão incrível um passo desse é para o desenvolvimento de terapias mais efetivas para pacientes com AIDS. Trata-se também de um precedente importante que estabelece uma base para que cientistas e pessoas comuns trabalhem juntas para resolver novos problemas e salvar vidas. O que é algo incrível. [Sydney Morning Herald via The Next Web]

Witch tax hits Romanian witches and fortune tellers (The Christian Science Monitor)

Witch tax: Superstitions are no laughing matter in Romania and have been part of its culture for centuries. President Traian Basescu and his aides have been known to wear purple on certain days, supposedly to ward off evil.

By Alison Mutler, Associated Press / January 7, 2011

Romanian witch Mihaela Minca deals cards during an interview with The Associated Press in Mogosoaia, Romania, Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011. Trouble is brewing for Romania’s witches, whose toil is being taxed for the first time despite their threats of putting curses on the government. Also being taxed for the first time are fortune tellers, who probably saw this coming. Vadim Ghirda/AP

Everyone curses the tax man, but Romanian witches angry about having to pay up for the first time hurled poisonous mandrake into the Danube River on Thursday to cast spells on the president and government.

Romania’s newest taxpayers also included fortune tellers — but they probably should have seen it coming.

Superstitions are no laughing matter in Romania — the land of the medieval ruler who inspired the “Dracula” tale — and have been part of its culture for centuries. President Traian Basescu and his aides have been known to wear purple on certain days, supposedly to ward off evil.

A witch at the Danube named Alisia called the new tax law “foolish.”

“What is there to tax, when we hardly earn anything?” she said, identifying herself with only one name as many Romanian witches do.

Yet on the Chitila River in southern Romania, other witches gathered around a fire Thursday and threw corn into an icy river to celebrate Epiphany. They praised the new government measure, saying it gives them official recognition.

Witch Melissa Minca told The Associated Press she was “happy that we are legal,” before chanting a spell to call for a good harvest, clutching a jar of charmed river water, a sprig of mistletoe and a candle.

The new tax law is part of the government’s drive to collect more revenue and crack down on tax evasion in a country that is in recession.

In the past, the less mainstream professions of witch, astrologer and fortune teller were not listed in the Romanian labor code, as were those of embalmer, valet and driving instructor. People who worked those jobs used their lack of registration to evade paying income tax.

Under the new law, like any self-employed person, they will pay 16 percent income tax and make contributions to health and pension programs.

Some argue the law will be hard to enforce, as the payments to witches and astrologers usually are small cash amounts of 20 to 30 lei ($7-$10) per consultation.

Mircea Geoana, who lost the presidential race to Basescu in 2009, performed poorly during a crucial debate, and his camp blamed attacks of negative energy by their opponent’s aides.

Geoana aide Viorel Hrebenciuc alleged there was a “violet flame” conspiracy during the campaign, saying Basescu and other aides dressed in purple on Thursdays to increase his chances of victory.

Romanian officials still wear purple clothing on important days, because the color supposedly makes the wearer superior and wards off evil.

Such spiritualism has long been tolerated by the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had their own personal witch.

Queen witch Bratara Buzea, 63, who was imprisoned in 1977 for witchcraft under Ceausescu’s repressive regime, is furious about the new law.

Sitting cross-legged in her villa in the lake resort of Mogosoaia, just north of Bucharest, she said Wednesday she planned to cast a spell using a particularly effective concoction of cat excrement and a dead dog.

“We do harm to those who harm us,” she said. “They want to take the country out of this crisis using us? They should get us out of the crisis because they brought us into it.”

“My curses always work!” she cackled in a smoky voice, sitting next to a wood-burning stove, surrounded by potions, charms, holy water and ceramic pots.

But not every witch threatened fire and brimstone.

“This law is very good,” said Mihaela Minca, sister of Melissa. “It means that our magic gifts are recognized and I can open my own practice.”

Nigerian car thief turns into goat! (The Christian Science Monitor)

In West Africa, widespread belief in witchcraft, black magic, and superstition undermine the fundamentals of journalism.

By Walter Rodgers / July 6, 2009

In Nigeria recently, an angry mob demanded that police jail a goat. Vigilantes insisted the animal was a human car thief who transmogrified upon being apprehended. Nigerian law doesn’t recognize magic, witchcraft, or voodoo. Yet, faced with an angry mob, police acquiesced, arresting the goat.

This story was my object lesson for a Practical Reporting 101 class I taught to Nigerian journalism students this spring. There was just one problem: Some felt the goat was guilty. “These things actually happen,” one woman protested.

Objective truth is the ideal of journalism. It’s a destination reached through rigorous reporting rooted in skepticism. That’s a tall order in a society that’s so heavily riddled with superstition. In Nigeria, the sharp line between fact and fiction is badly blurred by centuries of animism and occultism that infects contemporary Muslim and Christian thinking as well as secular thought.

Journalistic skepticism is hard to teach where public imagination supersedes rational disbelief. As a result, journalism’s leavening effect on society is diminished. Reporters must always tread lightly in matters of religion, of course. Nearly all faiths hold to beliefs that defy everyday evidence. But, in the West at least, it’s understood that private religious beliefs – along with political beliefs – should be compartmentalized from the practice of journalism. A reporter’s religious beliefs, no matter how odd, don’t necessarily preclude good journalism. But when those beliefs clearly interfere with basic fact-checking and verification, then it’s worth examining how collective belief in magic can impede the civic development that good journalism fosters.

Black magic, malevolent curses, and witch doctors are woven into the fabric of West African society. “I don’t believe in witches, but I know they exist,” one of my students said. Television soap operas feature a villain sprinkling green powder on the doorstep of the woman next door. The following day she is shown writhing in agony. Great swaths of Nigerian society take these curses seriously.

Not infrequently, police hear reports that a man claims someone cast a spell to capture his spirit. Tradition here holds that if you sleep in bed with your feet at the headboard, you are communing with witches. Criminals buy charms from witch doctors to become invisible and escape arrest. A hairdresser tells of a client of another customer who reported a snake in her house that turned into a young woman. When the girl was taken to a Pentecostal church service she turned back into a snake. The journalistic canon of having two independent sources to confirm a news story becomes irrelevant when an entire congregation insists “it really happened.”

In Nigeria hearsay becomes conviction, then “truth,” and credibility grows in the retelling.

TV coverage lends currency to rumor. Take the story of four thieves apprehended by vigilantes who tied and bound them. According to dozens of village witnesses, there was supposedly a puff of smoke and the bound villains became four tethered crocodiles. One student insisted this was more credible than transubstantiation at Roman Catholic communion – the doctrine that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ – because “the TV news showed video of the four crocodiles.”

“We believe in God,” says Lydia Tolulope Adeleru, an American-educated daughter of a Baptist minister. “We also believe in our cultural gods like Sango, the god of iron, as well as Esu, the devil. We are a deeply religious people but we never left the old ways.” Africans often look for an unknown element to blame for disasters, floods, and crop failures. “If Christians have a God who makes Lucifer fall from heaven,” adds Ms. Adeleru, “what’s so strange about our juju [black magic]?”

The “rules of evidence” are easily contaminated here. Beatrice Funmilayo, a diplomat’s daughter, was a rare skeptic. “Nigerians have rich traditions of storytelling, but as journalists, we have to divorce ourselves from our cultural inclinations.” “Besides,” she said, “if these things really happened, wouldn’t they happen everywhere and not just [in] Nigeria?”

Shebanjo Ola is a university-educated attorney. He told of a woman in his village mixing sand and stones in a bowl and covering it with paper. When she removed the paper, the contents had magically turned into rice and meat. I asked, “Did you see it?” “No, but my mother did, and she never lies,” he replied. So much for the journalistic canon: “When your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

In one class I abruptly asked, “Has anyone here actually seen someone magically disappear?” Temple Ojutalayo assured me he had. He said his university professor teaching traditional folk medicine “disappeared in front of the entire class.”

I asked how many of these aspiring journalists believed in ghosts. The hands shot up. “What about UFOs?”

No response. Then a voice from the rear said, “Those only happen in America.”

Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN. He writes a biweekly column for the Monitor’s weekly edition.

Ghana aims to abolish witches’ camps (The Christian Science Monitor)

For years, Ghanaians have banished women from their villages who were suspected of witchcraft. Now, Ghana is trying to ban this practice.

By Clair MacDougall, Correspondent / September 15, 2011

Ghanaian leaders and civil society groups met in the nation’s capital, Accra earlier this week to develop a plan to abolish the witches’ camps in the northern region, where over a thousand women and children who have been accused of sorcery are currently living in exile.

Deputy Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs Hajia Hawawu Boya Gariba said the ministry would be doing everything that it could to ensure the practice of families and neighbors banishing women from communities whom they suspected of being witches is abolished by developing legislation that would make it illegal to accuse someone of being a witch and gradually closing down camps and reintegrating women back into their communities.

“This practice has become an indictment on the conscience of our society,” Ms. Gariba said at the conference called Towards Banning “Witches” Camps. “The labeling of some of our kinsmen and women as witches and wizards and banishing them into camps where they live in inhuman and deplorable conditions is a violation of their fundamental human rights.”

Supreme Court Justice Rose Owusu also said that the practice violated numerous clauses in section 5 of Ghana’s 1992 Constitution. That section protects human rights and outlaws cultural practices which “dehumanize or are injurious to the physical and mental well-being of a person.” Ms. Owusu also called for the development of new legislation to outlaw the camps and the practice.

The witch camps of Ghana’s north

There are currently around 1,000 women and 700 children living in 6 of the witches’ camps in Ghana’s northern region.

Many of them are elderly women who have been accused of inflicting death, misfortune, and calamity on their neighbors and villages through sorcery, witchcraft, or “juju,” a term used throughout West Africa.

The women enjoy a certain degree of protection within these camps, located some distance from their communities in which they could be tortured, beaten to death, or lynched, but the conditions of the camps are often poor. The “accused witches,” as they are sometimes referred to, live in tiny thatched mud huts, and have limited access to food and must fetch water from nearby streams and creeks.

Forced to flee

An elderly woman named Bikamila Bagberi who has lived in Nabule witch camp in Gushegu a district in the Northern Region for the past 13 years, told the story of how she was forced to leave her village. Dressed in a headscarf, faded T-shirt, and cotton skirt, Ms. Bagberi spoke softly with her head bowed as a district assemblyman translated for the conference delegates.

Bagberi’s nephew, her brother-in-law’s son, had died unexpectedly and after the village soothsayer said she caused the death of the child her family tried make her confess to murdering him through sorcery. She said that when she refused she was beaten with an old bicycle chain, and later her nephew’s family members rubbed Ghanaian pepper sauce into her eyes and open wounds.

When asked whether she could return back to her village she said the family couldn’t bring her back into the community because of the fear that she will harm others. Bagberi said she expected to spend the rest of her life in the camp.

Catalyst for action

Human rights groups have been campaigning for the closure of the witches’ camps since the 1990s, but have had little success in abolishing the practice of sending women suspected of witchcraft into exile, in part because of lack of political will and the pervasiveness of the belief in witchcraft throughout Ghana. But the brutal murder of 72-year-old Ama Hemmah in the city of Tema in Novermber of last year, allegedly by six people, among them a Pentecostal pastor and his neighbors who are accused of dousing her with kerosene and setting her alight, caused public outrage and made headlines across the world. Since Hemmah’s death, opinion pieces and articles about the issue have featured in Ghana’s major newspapers, along with feature stores on local news programs.

Emmanuel Anukun-Dabson from Christian Outreach Fellowship, a group working with the accused witches at the Nabule camp and one of the organizers of the conference, suggested that a broader cultural shift needed to take place if the camps were to be abolished.

“In Ghana, we know that when a calamity happens or something befalls a family or a community the question is not what caused it, but rather who caused it?” Anukun-Dabson said. “We are a people who do not take responsibility for our actions; rather we find scapegoats and women are the targets.”

Chief Psychiatrist of Ghana’s Health Services Dr. Akwesi Osei, who spearheaded the conference, argued that a public awareness campaign on psychological disorders, dementia, and the mental and behavioral changes associated with menopause might help the public understand behaviors and perceived eccentricities that are often associated with witchcraft.

Belief in witchcraft and supernatural powers is common throughout Ghana, and Africa countries and is often encouraged by pastors who preach in the nation’s many charismatic churches. Supernatural themes and sorcery also feature strongly in Ghanaian and West African films and television programs.

Deputy Minister Gariba has called for another meeting to develop a more concrete road map and said that the National Disaster Management Organisation would be providing the witches’ camps with water tanks and additional food supplies.

Joojo Eenstua, another organizer of the camp who works with Christian Outreach Fellowship at Nabule, said the conference marked a new era in activism on the issue and believed that significant changes and improvements to the livelihoods of the women and children living in these witches camps would follow.

“There is more public awareness than before and there is more political will and momentum around this issue,” Ms. Eenstua says.

Unshakeable stereotypes of science (New Scientist)

13 September 2011 by Roger Highfield
Magazine issue 2829.

Science has transformed our world, so why does the public have such an old-fashioned view of scientists, asks Quentin Cooper

What is the problem with the public’s image of scientists?
If you ask anyone, they will tell you that science has transformed their world with amazing discoveries. But then if you invite them to draw a scientist, what they depict is precisely what people would have described 50 years ago, back when the anthropologist Margaret Mead came up with what we now call the “draw a scientist” test.

How do people generally depict scientists?
It is uncanny: they draw someone with a hangdog look, frizzy hair and test tube in hand, all in a scene where things are going wrong. There are national variations. In Italy, scientists tend to be scarred and have bolts in their necks, like Frankenstein’s monster. In general, though, they are mostly white, male, bald and wearing a white coat. No wonder we have a problem recruiting scientists.

What do you think of attempts to make scientists cool, like the Studmuffins of Science calendar and GQ’s Rock Stars of Science?
They are doomed because for geek calendars and suchlike to work, they have to bounce off the stereotype. As a result, they reinforce it.

On TV there are plenty of science presenters who defy the stereotype, such as the physicist Brian Cox. Surely that helps?
It is true. They are not all white, male and old. Some have hair. Some, like Brian, arguably have too much! But while people know them and are familiar with their TV programmes, it is surprising what happens when you ask the public about their favourite science presenters. In the UK they usually nominate veterans, such as David Attenborough. In fact, in the last poll I saw, half the people could not name a TV science presenter. They don’t seem to recognise them as scientists because they don’t conform to the stereotype.

And this stereotype also applies to the best known scientist of all time, Einstein?
The image of the old Einstein with tongue out is the one everyone knows – the one taken on his 72nd birthday. But he was a dapper 26-year-old when he had his “annus mirabilis” and wrote the four papers that changed physics.

What do you think about the depiction of scientists in films?
What I find striking is you almost never see scientists on screen unless they are doing science. There are very few characters who happen to be scientists. And those scientists shown tend to be at best eccentric, at worst mad and/or evil.

How can we improve the image of scientists?
Even though the “draw a scientist” test started half a century ago, it was only in the 1980s that someone had the idea of introducing children to a real scientist after they had drawn one, and then asking them to have another go at drawing. One of my favourite examples is of the schoolgirl who initially drew a man with frizzy hair and a white coat, but afterwards depicted a smiling young woman holding a test tube. Above it is the word “me”. I still find myself choking up when I show it.

Quentin Cooper is a science journalist and presenter of the BBC radio programme Material World. He is hosting the Cabaret of the Elements at the British Science Festival in Bradford on 10 September.

We Need To Do More When It Comes To Having Brief, Panicked Thoughts About Climate Change (The Onion)

SEPTEMBER 6, 2011 | ISSUE 47•36

The 20 hottest years on record have all taken place in the past quarter century. The resulting floods, wildfires, and heat waves have all had deadly consequences, and if we don’t reduce carbon emissions immediately, humanity faces bleak prospects. We can no longer ignore this issue. Beginning today, we must all do more when it comes to our brief and panicked thoughts about climate change.

Indeed, if there was ever a time when a desperate call to take action against global warming should race through our heads as we lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, that time is now.

Many well-intentioned people will take 20 seconds out of their week to consider the consequences of the lifestyle they’ve chosen, perhaps contemplating how their reliance on fossil fuels has contributed to the rapid melting of the Arctic ice cap. But if progress is what we truly want, 20 seconds is simply not enough. Not by a long shot. An issue this critical demands at least 45 seconds to a solid minute of real, concentrated panic.

And I’m not talking about letting the image of a drowning polar bear play out in your mind now and then. If we’re at all serious, we need to let ourselves occasionally be struck with grim visions of coastal cities washing away and people starving as drought-stricken farmlands fail to yield crops—and we need to do this regularly, every couple days or so, before continuing to go about our routines as usual.

This may seem like a lot to ask, but no one ever said making an effort to think about change was easy.

So if you pick up a newspaper and see an article about 10 percent of all living species going extinct by the end of the century, don’t just turn the page. Stop, peruse it for a moment, look at the photos, freak out for a few seconds, and then turn the page.

And the next time you start up your car, stop to think how the exhaust from your vehicle and millions of others like it contributes to air pollution, increasing the likelihood that a child in your neighborhood will develop asthma or other respiratory ailments. Take your time with it. Feel the full, crushing weight of that guilt. Then go ahead and drive wherever it was you wanted to go.

To do anything less is irresponsible.

Suppose you’ve just sat down in a crisply air-conditioned movie theater. Why not take the length of a preview or two to consider the building’s massive carbon footprint? Imagine those greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere, disrupting ecosystems and causing infectious diseases to spread rampantly, particularly in regions of the world where the poorest people live. Visualize massive storm systems cutting widespread swaths of destruction. Think of your children’s children dying horrible, unnecessary deaths.

You might even go so far as to experience actual physical symptoms: shaking, hyperventilation, perhaps even a heart palpitation. These are entirely appropriate responses to have, and the kinds of reactions each of us ought to have briefly before casting such worries aside to enjoy Conan The Barbarian.

Ultimately, however, our personal moments of distress won’t matter much unless our government intervenes with occasional mentions of climate change in important speeches, or by passing nonbinding legislation on the subject. I implore you: Spend a couple minutes each year imagining yourself writing impassioned letters to your elected representatives demanding a federal cap on emissions.

Global warming must be met with immediate, short-lasting feelings of overwhelming dread, or else life as we know it will truly cease—oh, God, there’s nothing we can do, is there? Maybe we’re already too late. What am I supposed to do? Unplug my refrigerator? I recycle, I take shorter showers than I used to, doesn’t that count for something? Devastating famines and brutal wars fought over dwindling resources? Is that my fault? Jesus, holy shit, someone do something! Tell me what to do! For the love of God, what can possibly be done?

There you have it. I’ve done my part. Now it’s your turn.

Few insurers planning for climate change (Reuters)

By Ben Berkowitz

NEW YORK, Sept 1 (Reuters) – Only one in eight insurers has a formal policy in place to manage climate risk, despite rising evidence that environmental changes are exacerbating insurers’ disaster losses, according to a coalition of public interest groups.

The coalition, Ceres, looked at 88 filings from six states by insurance companies, using a form developed by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. Ceres said it was the first-ever effort to quantify how U.S. insurers manage climate risk in their day-to-day operations.

Despite the broad lack of a formal policy, Ceres said insurers generally acknowledge the problem of climate change and the effect it can have on their business.

“Even those insurers with no formal climate policy, no climate risk management structure and a stated belief that the company is not vulnerable to the effects of climate change still name perils that may be affected by climate change 20 percent of the time,” Ceres said in its report.

Of the 11 companies with formal climate policies, two — Prudential Financial (PRU.N) and Genworth Financial (GNW.N) — are life insurers. The rest are mostly multi-line insurers or reinsurers. Among them are ACE Ltd (ACE.N), AIG’s (AIG.N) Chartis unit.

(For an Insider interview with the author of the Ceres report, click here:

The Ceres report comes as insurers start paying claims for last week’s Hurricane Irene, which broke flood records across the U.S. Northeast, and as they look to the Atlantic for the approach of what may become Hurricane Katia.

Because of the potential for hurricanes to cause sudden and huge losses in the United States, Ceres said the insurance industry is especially focused on how climate change will affect hurricane exposure, potentially at the expense of studying the impact on other common perils.

Some insurance companies have taken a public stand on climate issues, particularly home and auto insurer Allstate (ALL.N), which has warned that recent severe weather is part of a permanent change in the environment, and German reinsurance heavyweight Munich Re (MUVGn.DE).

Ceres recommended that all states make the National Association of Insurance Commissioners disclosure form mandatory and public, and that they adopt the model of California insurance regulators, who put together detailed guidelines on how to fill out the form.

Ceres describes itself is a national coalition of investors, environmental organizations and public interest groups. (Reporting by Ben Berkowitz; editing by John Wallace)

SINCE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 . . . (SSRC)


By Veena Das

A decade of intense theorizing on the forms of violence and human degradation, on global connectivity, on demands that scholarship be done in “real time” . . . a sense of urgency . . . disciplines are aggressively asked to prove their relevance . . . a deep disquiet on the part of many radical scholars and public intellectuals that the American public is increasingly becoming complicit in projects of warfare. We ask, are our senses being so retrained now that we cannot see the suffering of others or hear their cries? We declare with anguish that whole populations are defined as nothing but targets for bombing . . . as those whose deaths do not count, and hence those dead literally need not be counted. There is a desperation to hone in on what is new—perhaps, some theorize, what we now have is “horror” and not “terror” . . . perhaps, say others, what is lost is not only meaning but any trust in what might count as real.

Despite repeated calls for invention of new vocabularies, my own sense is that we have yet to come to terms with the violence of the past and that we have allowed our scholarly terms to be defined in a manner that we are becoming trapped in, terms that are already given in the questions that we ask. After all, do we need to be reminded that the single-most important factor in the decline of the total number of wars since 1942 was the end of colonial wars? Or that in the 1990s the region in which the highest death toll occurred was sub-Saharan Africa, and that it was the indirect death through disease and malnutrition that contributed to the enormity of the violence? I use the collective first-person pronoun to include myself within this trap of not being quite able to define what the right questions should be.

Ten years ago, when I contributed a short reflection on September 11 to the SSRC’s forum, something of this disquiet I feel about the mode of theorizing was already present. I argued that in the political rhetoric that circulated right after September 11, with its talk of attacks on the values of civilization, the American nation was seen to embody universal values—hence the talk was not of many terrorisms with which several countries had lived for more than thirty years but of one grand terrorism, Islamic terrorism. If I am allowed to loop back to my words, I asked, “What could this mean except that while terrorist forms of warfare in other spaces in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East were against forms of particularism, the attack on America is seen as an attack on humanity itself?” Perhaps we should ask of ourselves now the permission to be released from the grip of this master trope of September 11 that organizes a whole discourse, both conservative and radical, in terms of terrorism as the gripping drama of our times. We might then ask, what other questions have been under discussion among different communities of scholars and how might debate be widened to take account of these discussions?

One point I might put forward as a candidate for discussion is how affect is invested in some terms that come to be the signifiers of the pressing problems of a particular decade but then are dropped as if their force has been exhausted by new discoveries. When these terms drop out of scholarly circulation, do they still have lives that are lived in other corners of the world or in the lives of individuals who continue to give them expression? Consider the history of the term “ethnic cleansing,” which came to signify and organize much discussion in the nineties as referring to the pathology of what was termed as ethno-nationalism. As is well known, the term emerged in the summer of 1992 during the tragic events of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the emergence of new nation-states that were making claims for international recognition. Although the composite term “ethnic cleansing” came to be used only then, the idea of “cleaning” a territory by killing the local inhabitants and making it safe for military occupation was known in colonial wars as well as expressed extensively in Latin America with reference to undesirable groups, such as prostitutes, enemy collaborators, and the vagrant poor.

Norman Naimark has made the point that ethnic cleansing happens in the shadow of war. He cites the examples of the Greek expulsion as a result of the Greco-Turkish war, the intensification of ethnic cleansing when NATO bombing started in Kosovo in March 1999, and Stalin’s brutal dealings with the Chechen-Ingush and Crimean Tartars during the Second World War.1 A chilling aspect of ethnic cleansing is its totalistic character. As Naimark puts it:

The goal is to remove every member of the targeted nation; very few exceptions to ethnic cleansing are allowed. In premodern cases of assaults of one people on another, those attacked could give up, change sides, convert, pay tribute, or join the attackers. Ethnic cleansing, driven by the ideology of integral nationalism and the military and technological power of the modern state, rarely forgives, makes exceptions, or allows people to slip through the cracks.

Yet a concept that was said to be central to explaining major mass atrocities is now rarely encountered—except perhaps in international law discussions on the distinction between genocide and ethnic cleansing. Are the kinds of mass atrocities that have occurred since September 11 not amenable to discussion under any of the earlier terms? Do subjectivities shift so quickly? Are issues of intentionality as providing the criteria for distinguishing between genocide and ethnic cleansing already resolved? What is at stake in the fact that ethnic cleansing is a perpetrator’s term while genocide is a term that privileges the experience of the victims? What kind of footing in the world do enunciations made on behalf of all sides in conflicts that draw on such concepts as human rights and human dignity have?

While one can understand why the media might have moved on to other stories, have we as scholars come to terms with why some concepts disappear from our vocabularies so quickly? I want to suggest that a long-term perspective on how we come to speak of violence—the appearance and disappearance of different terms—provides a repertoire of concepts to be mined for understanding how representation of violence in the public sphere was closely tied up with the West’s self-definition that in turn defined the twists and turns in the social sciences. Ethnic cleansing in the nineties was widely understood as the violence of the other just as terrorism now is understood as the violence that the other perpetrates. September 11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan then become events that need to be placed in the long history of warfare that has generated the concepts of social science—concepts that cannot be divested of their political plenitude even as we recognize that the technologies of war have changed considerably.

Are there other discussions on war that are not quite within the discursive fields that dominate the post–September 11 scenario and the notion of Islamic terrorism? I find it salutary to think that other theoretical discussions are taking place that are outside this frame of reference. For instance, the prolonged civil war in Sri Lanka, in which both Sinhala soldiers and Tamil militants engaged in killing, has led to discussions on the relation between Buddhism and violence and whether there are strains of Buddhism, especially within the Mahayana school, that make room for the exercise of violence. Interestingly, the issues here are not those of justifying warfare but rather of dealing with the anxieties about bad karma generated by the acts of violence.

A sustained analysis of what enabled such developments as samurai Zen, or soldier Zen, to appear in Japan or how it is that Buddhism could find a home within kingdoms as diverse as the Indians, the Mongols, the Chinese, and the Thai deepens our understanding of violence and nonviolence precisely because it has the potential to change the angle of our vision.2 Similar discussions from within other traditions, both religious and secular, would help to break the monopoly of concepts (biopolitics, state of exception, homo sacer) that are now routinely used to understand the world. This hope is not an expression of sheer nostalgia for non-Western concepts but a plea to cultivate some attentiveness to those discourses that are (or could be) part of the history of our disciplines. Scholarly discourse cannot simply mirror the ephemeral character of media stories—even when a particular kind of violence disappears, the institutions that were put in place for dealing with it continue to have lives of their own. The braiding of what is new and what is enduring might then define how we come to pose questions that are not simply corollaries of the common sense of our times.

Veena Das is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Anthropology and professor of humanities at the Johns Hopkins University. Her most recent books are Life and Words: Violence and the Descent into the Ordinaryand Sociology and Anthropology of Economic Life: The Moral Embedding of Economic Action (ed., with R. K. Das).

  1. Norman M. Naimark, Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  2. See Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds., Buddhist Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Shooting the messenger (The Miami Herald)

Posted on Monday, 08.29.11

Texas Gov. Rick Perry stirred up controversy on the campaign trail recently when he dismissed the problem of climate change and accused scientists of basically making up the problem.

As a born-and-bred Texan, it’s especially disturbing to hear this now, when our state is getting absolutely hammered by heat and drought. I’ve got to wonder how any resident of Texas – and particularly the governor who not so long ago was asking us to pray for rain – can be so cavalier about climate change.

As a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, I can also tell you from the data that the current heat wave and drought in Texas is so bad that calling it “extreme weather” does not do it justice. July was the single hottest month in the observational record, and the 12 months that ended in July were drier than any corresponding period in the record. I know that climate change does not cause any specific weather event. But I also know that humans have warmed the climate over the last century, and that this warming has almost certainly made the heat wave and drought more extreme than it would have otherwise been.

I am not alone in these views. There are dozens of atmospheric scientists at Texas institutions like Rice, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M, and none of them dispute the mainstream scientific view of climate change. This is not surprising, since there are only a handful of atmospheric scientists in the entire world who dispute the essential facts – and their ranks are not increasing, as Gov. Perry claimed.

And I can assure Gov. Perry that scientists are not just another special interest looking to line their own pockets. I left a job as an investment banker on Wall Street in 1988 to go to graduate school in chemistry. I certainly didn’t make that choice to get rich, and I didn’t do it to exert influence in the international arena either.

I went into science because I wanted to devote my life to the search for scientific knowledge. and to make the world a better place. That’s the same noble goal that motivates most scientists. The ultimate dream is to make a discovery so profound and revolutionary that it catapults one into the pantheon of the greatest scientific minds of history: Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Planck, etc.

This is just one of the many reasons it is inconceivable for an entire scientific community to conspire en masse to mislead the public. In fact, if climate scientists truly wanted to maximize funding, we would be claiming that we had no idea why the climate is changing – a position that would certainly attract bipartisan support for increased research.

The economic costs of the Texas heat wave and drought are enormous. The cost to Texas alone will be many billion dollars (hundreds of dollars for every resident), and these costs will ripple through the economy so that everyone will eventually pay for it. Gov. Perry needs to squarely face the choice confronting us; either we pay to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, or we pay for the impacts of a changing climate. There is no free lunch.

Economists have looked at this problem repeatedly over the last two decades, and virtually every mainstream economist has concluded that the costs of reducing emissions are less than the costs of unchecked climate change. The only disagreement is on the optimal level of emissions reductions.

I suppose it should not be surprising when politicians like Gov. Perry choose to shoot the messenger rather than face this hard choice. He may view this as a legitimate policy on climate change, but it’s not one that the facts support.

Read more here.

A Reality Check on Clouds and Climate (N.Y. Times)

September 6, 2011, 5:44 PM

Dot Earth


I am often in awe of clouds, as was the case when I shot this video of a remarkable thunderhead somewhere over the Midwest. But I’m tired of the recent burst of over-interpretation of a couple of papers examining aspects of clouds in the context of a changing climate.

I’ve long pointed out that anyone trumpeting a conclusion about greenhouse-driven climate change on the basis of a single paper should be treated with skepticism or outright suspicion. I trust climate science as an enterprise because — despite its flaws — it is a self-correcting process in which trajectory matters far more than individual steps in the road.

There is always a temptation, particularly for those with an agenda and for media in search of the “front-page thought,” to overemphasize studies that fit some template, no matter how tentative, or flawed.

The flood of celebratory coverage that followed publication of a recent paper by Roy Spencer and Danny Braswell — proposing a big reduction in the sensitivity of the climate to greenhouse gases — was far more about pushing an agenda than providing guidance on the state of climate science. There’s a lot more on this below.

The same goes for the stampede on clouds and climate following publication of an important, but preliminary, laboratory finding from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (better known by its acronym, CERN) about how cosmic rays can stimulate the formation of atmospheric particles(an ingredient in cloud formation). It’s a long road from that conclusion to an argument that variations in cosmic rays can explain a meaningful portion of recent climate change.

There’s a long history of assertions that clouds can be a substantial driver of climate change, distinct from their clear potential to amplify or blunt(depending on the type of cloud) a change set in motion by some other force. But there’s still scant evidence to back up such assertions.

In weighing the new results on cosmic rays and the atmosphere, I find a lot of merit in Hank Campbell’s conclusion at Science 2.0:

[I]t isn’t evidence that the Sun’s magnetic field is controlling cosmic rays and therefore our temperature far more than mankind and pollution are doing.

It is simply science at work – finally, after a decade and a half of circling the wagons, hypotheses that were dismissed as conspiratorial nonsense by zealots get a chance to live or die by the scientific method and not by aggressive posturing.

new paper by Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University bolsters the established view of clouds’ role as a feedback mechanism — but not driver — in climate dynamics through a decade of observation and analysis of El Nino and La Nina events (periodic warm and cool phases of the Pacific Ocean).

The paper directly challenges conclusions of Spencer and Braswell and anearlier paper positing a role of clouds in driving climate change.

Dessler, setting his findings and other work on clouds and climate in broader context, offered this observation this morning about the polarized, and distorted, public discourse:

To me, the real story here is that, every month, dozens if not hundreds of papers are published that are in agreement with the mainstream theory of climate science.

[ACR: I did a quick Google Scholar search for “CO2 climate change greenhouse” to put a rough upper bound on this and got ~9,000 papers so far in 2011.]

But, every year, one or two skeptical papers get published, and these are then trumpeted by sympathetic media outlets as if they’d discovered the wheel. It therefore appears to the general public that there’s a debate.

Here’s more from Dessler on his new paper:

A separate question has emerged around the Spencer-Braswell paper. Should it have been published in the first place?

As Retraction Watch (a fascinating and worthwhile blog) chronicled last week, the editor of Remote Sensing, the journal in which the paper appeared, emphatically — if after the fact — said no, emphasizing his view by very publicly resigning.

This move was hailed by defenders of the climate status quo in a piece run inThe Daily Climate and Climate Progress. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, remarkably given space in Forbes, called the resignation “staggering news.”

But others, including the folks at Retraction Watch, wondered why the editor at Remote Sensing, Wolfgang Wagner, didn’t simply seek to have the paper retracted?

Roger A. Pielke, Jr., whose focus at the University of Colorado is climate in the context of political science, echoed that question, urging the new team at the journal to initiate retraction proceedings, adding:

If the charges of “error” and “false claims” are upheld the paper should certainly be retracted.  If the charges are not upheld then the authors have every right to have such a judgment announced publicly.

Absent such an adjudication we are left with climate science played out as political theater in the media and on blogs — with each side claiming the righteousness of their views, while everyone else just sees the peer review process in climate science getting another black eye.

Over the weekend, I asked Kerry Emanuel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his thoughts both on the Spencer-Braswell paper and the histrionic resignation by the editor. Here’s Emanuel:

About the paper: I read it when it first came out, and thought that some of their findings were significant and important. Basically, it presented evidence that feedbacks inferred from short-period and/or local climate change observations might not be relevant to long-period global change. I suppose I thought that rather obvious, but not everyone agrees. The one statement in the paper, to the effect that climate models might be overestimating positive feedback, struck me as unsubstantiated, but the authors themselves phrased it as speculative.

But the interesting and unusual thing about this is that that what pundits said about the paper, and indeed what Spencer said about it in press releases, etc., in my view had very little to do with the paper itself. I have seldom seen such a degree of disconnect between the substance of a paper and what has been said about it.

Gavin Schmidt of Real Climate and NASA has posted a thorough and useful dissection of the situation, “Resignations, retractions and the process of science,” that comes to what I see as the right conclusion:

I think (rightly) that people feel that the best way to deal with these papers is within the literature itself, and in this case it is happening this week in GRL (Dessler, 2011) [the Dessler paper discussed above], and in Remote Sensing in a few months. That’s the way it should be, and neither resignations nor retractions are likely to become more dominant – despite the amount of popcorn being passed around.

There’s more useful context and analysis from Keith Kloor, who notes the role played by the Drudge Report in amping up the story (blogging at the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media), Mike LemonickJudith Curry and many others.

As always happens after such episodes, the one clear finding is that clouds remain a complicating component in efforts to project warming from the building greenhouse effect.

Joni Mitchell’s classic, with a bit of mangling, sums things up well:

They’ve looked at clouds from all sides now, as feedback and forcing, and still somehow, it’s clouds’ illusions most often recalled. More work is needed to know clouds at all.

8:52 p.m. | Postscript |
There’s more coverage of the Spencer-Braswell paper at Knight Science Journalism Tracker and the blogs of Roger Pielke, Sr. and William M. Briggs. Roy Spencer has posted a piece titled “More Thoughts on the War Being Waged Against Us.”

Philosophers Notwithstanding, Kansas School Board Redefines Science (N.Y. Times)

Published: November 15, 2005

Once it was the left who wanted to redefine science.

In the early 1990’s, writers like the Czech playwright and former president Vaclav Havel and the French philosopher Bruno Latour proclaimed “the end of objectivity.” The laws of science were constructed rather than discovered, some academics said; science was just another way of looking at the world, a servant of corporate and military interests. Everybody had a claim on truth.

The right defended the traditional notion of science back then. Now it is the right that is trying to change it.

On Tuesday, fueled by the popular opposition to the Darwinian theory of evolution, the Kansas State Board of Education stepped into this fraught philosophical territory. In the course of revising the state’s science standards to include criticism of evolution, the board promulgated a new definition of science itself.

The changes in the official state definition are subtle and lawyerly, and involve mainly the removal of two words: “natural explanations.” But they are a red flag to scientists, who say the changes obliterate the distinction between the natural and the supernatural that goes back to Galileo and the foundations of science.

The old definition reads in part, “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us.” The new one calls science “a systematic method of continuing investigation that uses observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”

Adrian Melott, a physics professor at the University of Kansas who has long been fighting Darwin’s opponents, said, “The only reason to take out ‘natural explanations’ is if you want to open the door to supernatural explanations.”

Gerald Holton, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, said removing those two words and the framework they set means “anything goes.”

The authors of these changes say that presuming the laws of science can explain all natural phenomena promotes materialism, secular humanism, atheism and leads to the idea that life is accidental. Indeed, they say in material online at, it may even be unconstitutional to promulgate that attitude in a classroom because it is not ideologically “neutral.”

But many scientists say that characterization is an overstatement of the claims of science. The scientist’s job description, said Steven Weinberg, a physicist and Nobel laureate at the University of Texas, is to search for natural explanations, just as a mechanic looks for mechanical reasons why a car won’t run.

“This doesn’t mean that they commit themselves to the view that this is all there is,” Dr. Weinberg wrote in an e-mail message. “Many scientists (including me) think that this is the case, but other scientists are religious, and believe that what is observed in nature is at least in part a result of God’s will.”

The opposition to evolution, of course, is as old as the theory itself. “This is a very long story,” said Dr. Holton, who attributed its recent prominence to politics and the drive by many religious conservatives to tar science with the brush of materialism.

How long the Kansas changes will last is anyone’s guess. The state board tried to abolish the teaching of evolution and the Big Bang in schools six years ago, only to reverse course in 2001.

As it happened, the Kansas vote last week came on the same day that voters in Dover, Pa., ousted the local school board that had been sued for introducing the teaching of intelligent design.

As Dr. Weinberg noted, scientists and philosophers have been trying to define science, mostly unsuccessfully, for centuries.

When pressed for a definition of what they do, many scientists eventually fall back on the notion of falsifiability propounded by the philosopher Karl Popper. A scientific statement, he said, is one that can be proved wrong, like “the sun always rises in the east” or “light in a vacuum travels 186,000 miles a second.” By Popper’s rules, a law of science can never be proved; it can only be used to make a prediction that can be tested, with the possibility of being proved wrong.

But the rules get fuzzy in practice. For example, what is the role of intuition in analyzing a foggy set of data points? James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, said in an e-mail message: “It’s the widespread belief that so-called scientific method is a clear, well-understood thing. Not so.” It is learned by doing, he added, and for that good examples and teachers are needed.

One thing scientists agree on, though, is that the requirement of testability excludes supernatural explanations. The supernatural, by definition, does not have to follow any rules or regularities, so it cannot be tested. “The only claim regularly made by the pro-science side is that supernatural explanations are empty,” Dr. Brown said.

The redefinition by the Kansas board will have nothing to do with how science is performed, in Kansas or anywhere else. But Dr. Holton said that if more states changed their standards, it could complicate the lives of science teachers and students around the nation.

He added that Galileo – who started it all, and paid the price – had “a wonderful way” of separating the supernatural from the natural. There are two equally worthy ways to understand the divine, Galileo said. “One was reverent contemplation of the Bible, God’s word,” Dr. Holton said. “The other was through scientific contemplation of the world, which is his creation.

“That is the view that I hope the Kansas school board would have adopted.”