Tuesday, July 10, 2007

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells the punch line of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable on almost every page. And pretty much the same punchline appeared on almost every page of his previous book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and Markets. Yet, he does tell the story entertainingly and his books do sell. So, all power to him.

He is at his very best (in my view) in "The Scandal of Prediction" (Ch. 10 of Swan). In the social sciences, prediction is a fool's errand -- and ubiquitous. Even in the natural sciences, great humility is a good idea.

Dare I say climate change doomsday? There are many juicy targets and last weekend delivered many more. Jonah Goldberg tells it best in "Live Earth: Dead on arrival" (LA Times, July 10, 2007).
'IF YOU WANT to save the planet, I want you to start jumping
up and down. Come on, mother-[bleepers]!" Madonna railed from the stage at
London's Live Earth concert Saturday. "If you want to save the planet, let me
see you jump!"

You just can't beat that. What else could capture the canned
juvenilia of a 48-year-old centimillionaire — who owns nine homes and has a
"carbon footprint" nearly 100 times larger than the norm — hectoring a bunch of
well-off, aging hipsters to show their Earth-love by jumping up and down like
children? I suppose she could have said, "Now put your right foot in / Take your
right foot out / Right foot in / Then you shake it all about…. That's what
climate change is all about."

Actually, I think the "Hokey Pokey" makes more sense.

But, hey, I don't want to bash Live Earth, which is not to be
confused with Live Aid (1985, dedicated to eradicating African famine) or Live 8
(2005, promising to relieve African nations' debts). So with the African
continent so well-fed — and debt free! — who can blame the Celebrity Concern
Industry for moving on to its next big success?

The avowed point of Live Earth was to … can you guess? That's
right: raise awareness about global warming. Considering the energy required to
put on the show, the nine Live Earth concerts doubtlessly raised more CO2 than
awareness. NBC's three-hour televised version got trounced by "Cops" and
"America's Funniest Home Videos." Moreover, surely most of the people who
attended or tuned in already knew about global warming before they saw the video
tutorial about Ed Begley Jr.'s eco-friendly home and sanctimony-powered go-cart.

Still, if some rock fans had somehow missed the global warming
story entirely, imagine how befuddled they must have felt while listening to
Dave Matthews sing the glories of cloth diapers. And, assuming they didn't hit
the mute button when Czech supermodel Petra Nemcova came to the stage, one
wonders what any climate-change ingenues might have made of her confession. The
model, who nearly was killed in Thailand by the 2004 tsunami, explained that she
"didn't feel hate toward nature" because of the tsunami. "I felt nature was
screaming for help."

It's nice that Nemcova didn't want to blame the messenger, but
it's hard to feel a similar reluctance about Live Earth's impresario in chief.
Former Vice President Al Gore recently penned a book in which he rails against
the current "assault on reason" by the evil forces of Earth-hating
right-wingery. He repeatedly invokes science as if it's his exclusive property.
But the soft paganism on display in Nemcova's faith-based assertion that a
sub-oceanic earthquake was the result of Mother Nature sending us a message is
typical of greenhouse gasbaggery.

Gore talks about the dysfunction of political discourse today.
But when it comes to global warming, he and his acolytes insist that the time
for debate is over. In other words, Gore's ideal discourse would involve only
discussion about how best to follow through on his prescriptions.

But such high-minded objections sail over the chief source of
Live Earth's lameness. The acts were mostly fine. But the outrage and passion
felt so prepackaged you half-expected Ludacris (who rapped about the evils of
SUVs) to say "this moral outrage is brought to you by GE's 'Ecomagination.' "
Indeed, one could say that Live Earth is proof that global warming has jumped
the shark, except for the fact that the phrase "jumped the shark" has jumped the

Madonna, Genesis, UB40, the Police, Cat Stevens (now Yusuf
Islam), Crowded House, Duran Duran — these were among the headliners for this
supposedly cutting-edge extravaganza. I listened to these acts in high school
more than 20 years ago — and some of them were already going gray by then. Phil
Collins and Sting are 56. Cat Stevens is just shy of 60. The Rolling Stones
didn't play Live Earth, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was because Mick
Jagger needed a hip replacement.

Like the Rolling Stones, who define "graceful retirement" as
drags on the oxygen tank between sets, these acts hawk youthful-activism
nostalgia for the fans rich enough to pay for it.

Some argue that environmentalism has become a secular
religion. Buying carbon offsets, they say, is the modern equivalent of
purchasing indulgences for your sins from the Catholic Church. Live Earth
certainly fit into that vision. The concerts seemed like Baptist hoedowns of
yore, except now Gore is the Billy Sunday for the baby boomer

Maybe that's in the works too. But more likely, these were
simply concerts by and for people who need to salt their sanctimony with
platitudes about raising awareness. The music industry always has played fans
for saps. In 1968, Columbia Records peddled the slogan "The Man Can't Bust Our
Music!" Now global warming is a brilliant way to market aging rockers too rich
and famous to pass as rebels against anything save their refusal to retire with
some dignity.