Monday, December 24, 2012

Paul Krugman: When Prophecy Fails

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Paul Krugman: When Prophecy Fails

When people are "absurdly wrong for years on end," it's time to stop listening to them:

When Prophecy Fails, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times
: Back in the
1950s three social psychologists joined a cult that was predicting the imminent
end of the world. Their purpose was to observe the cultists' response when the
world did not, in fact, end on schedule. What they discovered ... is that the
irrefutable failure of a prophecy does not cause true believers ... to
reconsider. On the contrary, they become even more fervent, and proselytize even

This insight seems highly relevant as 2012 draws to a close. After all, a lot of
people came to believe that we were on the brink of catastrophe — and these
views were given extraordinary reach by the mass media. As it turned out..., the
predicted catastrophe failed to materialize. But we can be sure that the
cultists won't admit to having been wrong. No, the people who told us that a
fiscal crisis was imminent will just keep at it, more convinced than ever.

Oh, wait a second — did you think I was talking about the Mayan calendar thing?

Seriously, at every stage of our ongoing economic crisis — and in particular,
every time anyone has suggested actually trying to do something about mass
unemployment — a chorus of voices has warned that unless we bring down budget
deficits now now now, financial markets will turn on America, driving interest
rates sky-high. And ... very few of the prophets of fiscal doom have
acknowledged the failure of their prophecies to come true so far. ...

I and other economists argued from the beginning that ... budget deficits won't
cause soaring interest rates as long as the economy is depressed —... the
biggest risk to the economy is that we might ... slash the deficit too soon. And
surely that point of view has been strongly validated by events.

The key thing ... to understand, however, is that the prophets of fiscal
disaster ... are at this point effectively members of a doomsday cult. They are
emotionally and professionally committed to the belief that fiscal crisis lurks
just around the corner, and they will hold to their belief no matter how many
corners we turn without encountering that crisis.

So we ... will not persuade these people to reconsider their views in the light
of the evidence. All we can do is stop paying attention. It's going to be
difficult, because many members of the deficit cult seem highly respectable. But
they've been hugely, absurdly wrong for years on end, and it's time to stop
taking them seriously.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do

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The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don't Do

Post written by Leo Babauta.

You know that you should exercise, and eat lots of veggies and less fried, salty and sweet foods.

But knowing something and actually doing it are two very different things.

You know you should stop procrastinating. You know you should watch less TV or go to social sites (or news sites, or your email program) less often. You know you should be writing, or learning that language you've always wanted to learn, or practicing guitar, or decluttering your house.

Knowing isn't the problem. It's the doing that gets us every time.

In business, there's a concept called The Knowing-Doing Gap, where companies study all kinds of ways to improve, hire consultants and hold endless seminars, start a new Big Program every year … but don't actually change anything. They know what to improve, but don't actually implement it.

Why is implementing so hard? How do we put knowledge into action? What's stopping us, and how do we overcome it?

The answers are both simple, and difficult. Let's take a look.

Doing vs. Not Doing

It's not knowledge of what to do that's stopping us. That's usually fairly simple:

  • If you want to lose weight, eat fewer calories and move more.

  • If you want to be healthier, eat more veggies, beans, nuts, seeds, fruits and whole grains.

  • If you want to be in better shape, exercise.

  • If you want to write a book, fucking write it.

  • If you want to learn a language or an instrument, practice.

But that's not what we do. Here's what we do instead:

  • We read about various programs.

  • We talk about it a lot.

  • We put off doing it and go do something else.

  • We feel guilty about it, and then push it to the back of our minds.

  • We finally decide to take action, so we read and talk about it some more.

Reading isn't doing (unless what you want to do is read more books). Talking isn't doing (unless you're learning to communicate better or become a public speaker).

Doing is doing.

So what's stopping us from doing the doing? It's fairly simple.

The Little Thing That Stops Us

There's something going on here that stops us from doing what we know. It's hidden, it's a mystery. We all have it, but rarely know what to do about it, and worse, rarely acknowledge it.

It's fear.

Why don't you write the chapter of your book, or write your blog post, but instead go and check Facebook, Twitter and email? Because you're afraid you'll fail. You're...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Climate Talks Yield Commitment to Ambitious, but Unclear, Actions -

Climate Talks Yield Commitment to Ambitious, but Unclear, Actions

DOHA, Qatar — The annual United Nations climate change negotiations concluded here late Saturday after the customary all-night negotiating session and recriminations over who must bear the costs and burdens of a warming planet.

Delegates from more than 190 nations agreed to extend the increasingly ineffective Kyoto Protocol a few years and to commit to more ambitious — but unspecified — actions to reduce emissions of climate-altering gases.

Wealthy nations put off for a year resolution of the dispute over providing billions of dollars in aid to countries most heavily affected by climate change. Industrial nations have pledged to secure $100 billion a year by 2020 in public and private financing to help poor countries cope with climate change, but have been vague about what they plan to do before then.

Only a handful of countries, not including the United States, have made concrete financial pledges for adaptation aid over the next few years. Todd D. Stern, the senior American negotiator, said that the United States would continue to provide substantial climate-related aid to vulnerable countries. But he said he was not in a position, given the budget talks in Washington and the Congressional process, to promise new American financing.

The participants noted with "grave concern" the widening gap between what countries have promised to do to reduce emissions and the growing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. They declared it unlikely that on the current path the world would be able to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial times, a central goal of the United Nations process.

But the group left for future years any plan for addressing the mismatch between goals and reality, merely stating an intention to "identify and explore in 2013 options for a range of actions to close the pre-2020 ambition gap."

The accomplishments of this year's meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were modest, but so were its aims.

The meeting, formally known as the 18th Conference of the Parties, or COP 18, was always seen as a transition from the longstanding division of nations into industrialized perpetrators and developing-world victims of dangerous climate change. That division was enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States never joined and which assigned pollution reduction targets to advanced nations but none to developing countries, including the world's current largest greenhouse gas emitter, China.

The parties agreed last year in Durban, South Africa, to work toward a new protocol or other legally binding instrument that would require actions of all parties, not just rich nations as under the Kyoto agreement of 1997. The new agreement is to be concluded by 2015 and enter into force in 2020.

The Doha meeting did not produce even the barest outline of what that new agreement would look like, leaving those questions for future meetings.

The convention addressed the concept of loss and damage, recognizing the increasing frequency of extreme weather events as well as slower-acting threats like drought and sea level rise. The body adopted language urging more financial and technical support for the most vulnerable countries. But it did not create a mechanism to handle such aid, angering some delegates.

Kieren Keke, foreign minister of the Pacific nation of Nauru and chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States, called the package adopted Saturday "deeply deficient."

"This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you," he told the delegates. "It certainly isn't where we need to be in order to prevent islands from going under and other unimaginable impacts. It has become abundantly clear that unless the work is supported by world leaders, particularly those representing the countries most responsible for the crisis, we will continue to fall short year after year."

It has long been evident that the United Nations talks were at best a partial solution to the planetary climate change problem, and at worst an expensive sideshow. The most effective actions to date have been taken at the national, state and local levels, with a number of countries adopting aggressive emissions reductions programs and using cap-and-trade programs or other means to help finance them.

While the United States has not adopted a comprehensive approach to climate change, the Obama administration has put in place a significant auto emissions reduction program and a plan to regulate carbon dioxide from new power plants. California has adopted a cap-and-trade system for 2013.

Other countries, including South Korea, Australia and most of Europe, started earlier and have gone much further. It is those kinds of efforts that hold the most promise, at least in the short term, for controlling a problem that scientists say is growing worse faster than any of them predicted even a few years ago.

"What this meeting reinforced is that while this is an important forum, it is not the only one in which progress can and must be made," said Jennifer Haverkamp, director of the international climate programs at the Environmental Defense Fund. "The disconnect between the level of ambition the parties are showing here and what needs to happen to avoid dangerous climate change is profound."

Is Earth f**ked: At 2012 AGU meeting, scientists consider advocacy, activism, politics, and getting arrested. - Slate Magazine

Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone's Mind

NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade.

NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.

Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: "Is Earth F**ked?" But it's not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world's largest scientific gatherings.

Nestled among offerings such as "Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics" and "Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle," the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union's fall meeting.  Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he's the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner's panel announced the talk's title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.

Why shout out the blunt question on everyone's mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. "Not so much depressed about all the good science that's being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds," he clarified, "but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it."

That's probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse. Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, for instance, published a paper in Nature Climate Change this week showing that carbon emissions have reached record levels, with a 2.6 percent projected rise in 2012. In another AGU presentation, Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posed the question: "Will realistic fossil fuel burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?" He did not seem optimistic. "We might end up burning 900 billion tons of carbon" from oil, gas, and coal, he announced. "We can have a managed path to lower emissions—or do it by misery." A guy next to me in the audience gave a kind of hopeless snort. The head of NOAA and polar experts held a news conference at the conference entitled, "What's going on in the Arctic?" This year broke all sorts of records: the lowest recorded sea-ice extent, the lowest recorded snow cover extent and duration, and the most extensive recorded melting event on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, among other milestones. "I've studied Greenland for 20 years now; I've devoted my career to it," Jason Box of Ohio State University intoned somberly, "and 2012 was an astonishing year. This was the warmest summer in a period of record that's continuous in 170 years."

Werner's title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how f**ked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?

Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet's critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.  

Lonnie Thompson, one of the world's foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:

Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.

That's the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed f**ked, unless we get our s**t together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.

Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. "Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I've done," he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. "I've taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, 'You're wasting your time, you're risking your career,' " he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn't seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. "I have a 14-month-old daughter," he explained simply.

The bulk of Werner's talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a "preliminary agent-based numerical model" of "coupled human-environmental systems." He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist's domain. "It's really a geophysics problem," he said. "It's not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities."

Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the "coupled human-environmental system"—that is to say, if you're interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is f**ked—then, Werner's model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.

I asked Werner what he sees as scientists' role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. "To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have," he told me. "In my other life, I am an activist, but there's a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I'm doing geophysics, I'm a geophysicist. When I'm doing activism, I'm an activist."

Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. "Even if you say, 'OK, I'm not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,' that's a decision that researchers have to make." This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows' work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. "The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions," Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.

Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland's ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.

As for the big question—is Earth f**ked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. "What happens is not too surprising," he told us evenly. "Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage."

Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that "it delays the environmental damage but it doesn't prevent it."

That's not too surprising either. (But it also implies we're eventually, definitely f**ked.) Still, there's a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn't completed that part of his model, so we'll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that "even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner."

In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite f**ked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do | Nir and Far

Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do | Nir and Far


A reader recently asked me a pointed question: “I’ve read your work on creating user habits. It’s all well and good for getting people to do things, like using an app on their iPhone, but I’ve got a bigger problem. How do I get people to do things they don’t want to do?” Taken aback by the directness and potentially immoral implications of his question, my gut reaction was to say, “You can’t and shouldn’t!” To which his response was, “I have to; it’s my job.”
This gentleman, who asked that I not disclose his name, is the corporate equivalent of the guy the mob sends to break kneecaps if a worker doesn’t do as they’re told. For the past decade, he has run the same methodical process of cajoling, and at times threatening, people to do things they don’t want to do. “It’s really unfair and mean. I know it is,” he said. “But people have to comply or else people get hurt.”
This man is an identity and access management auditor at a well-known public accounting firm. Not exactlyGood Fellas, but high-stakes nonetheless. His Fortune 500 clients pay his firm to ensure managers complete lengthy inquiries involving hundreds of employees collecting thousands of pieces of information, usually on tight deadlines. “Ever since Sarbanes-Oxley, these user access reviews just have to get done.”
Though the auditor’s job is unique, getting others to do uninteresting tasks (specifically those that are infrequent and involve work done outside normal responsibilities) is a common challenge.


I pondered this question and searched my mental database for examples of companies I’ve worked with or could reference as case studies. But instead, I thought about the last time I saw someone willfully doing something they didn’t want to do; my four-year-old daughter came to mind.
We had recently taken her to the pediatrician for a final round of shots before kindergarten and, to our surprise, she left the doctor’s office with a spring in her step and a smile on her face. To a child, there are few things more terrifying than getting stuck with needles, and it was the closest equivalent I could think of to completing the auditor’s “user access reviews.”
What made my daughter’s visit to the doctor so painless helps illustrate three tactics anyone can use to get people to do things they don’t inherently want to do.


When the nurse stepped into the examining room, my daughter knew something was up. On a small tray, she carried four intimidating syringes. But instead of showing them all to my daughter, she thoughtfully kept them out of view. At the appropriate time, she reached for a needle, one by one, careful to consider how her actions would be perceived by my daughter. She tamed the instruments of toddler torment through what designers call progressive disclosure; to the nurse, it was just considerate common sense.
Staging tasks into small conquerable chunks is so basic yet so underutilized. Who wouldn’t take the time to ease a child’s fear with a little well-planned parsing? Yet in the office, it is all too common to lob large complex requests at our colleagues and be surprised by the ill-will we get in return. In the auditor’s case for example, he admitted that his clients start by sending long memos accompanied by even longer spreadsheets detailing the entire tedious task. No wonder their emails are met with contempt.
Managers pushing down tasks know all the level of details and tend to think everyone else should, too. But that’s just not the case. Most users just want to know what to do next, and flooding them with too much information induces stress and fear. Having the forethought to appropriately stage the work can reduce this fear, which ironically, in both children and adults, is often much worse than the prick of the needle itself.


In the auditor’s case, his requests were particularly painful because they were too infrequent to become skill-building routines. Whereas many tasks become easier with time as people improve their abilities, corporate fire drills are dreaded for many reasons. For one, they distract workers from their regular duties. They often require learning new processes or hunting down long-discarded information. And worst of all, they can last for an undefined period of time, providing little visibility into when the pain will end.
Just as parsing tasks into smaller chunks can make a job seem more achievable, providing greater insight into the progress made is another way to reduce cognitive stress. In the pediatrician’s office, the thoughtful nurse asked my daughter to count to five as she administered each shot, giving my daughter an idea of how long the pain would last and creating a sense of control.
For years, game designers have utilized mechanisms to track advancement. Progress bars help players understand where they are in the game just as tracking and estimation tools could help workers better plan their work. These tools help inform how much time the next task should take and its relative place in the entire job. Providing a sense of progression is a form of feedback and is a key component of making unpleasant tasks more manageable.


To our amazement, even after receiving four shots, my daughter left the doctor’s office without shedding a single tear. The nurse used staged disclosure and eased the pain through progress indicators, but the final secret sat just outside the examination room.
There, on her way in, my daughter ogled a mysterious box she knew was filled with prizes. “After your visit,” the nurse told her, “you’ll get to pick anything you’d like from the treasure chest.” Offering prizes for the completion of certain tasks is effective in both children and adults, but beware, there is risk in rewards.
Numerous studies have shown that extrinsic rewards — incentives that are separate from the activity itself — often backfire. Reinforcing behavior this way tends to extinguish the pleasure of doing something for its own sake. For example, studies of children rewarded for doing activities they already enjoyed — like playing drums or drawing pictures — resulted in less motivation to do the activity later on.
Where long-term behaviors are the goal, more purposeful incentives are better. Self-Determination Theory, as espoused by researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, contends that people are motivated by deeper psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Clearly, making sure people know why their work matters is always the first step.
But while motivating through meaning is preferred, there are circumstances when prizes are in fact appropriate. When it comes to tasks people don’t want to do, specifically infrequent and uninteresting assignments, utilizing extrinsic rewards is safe because there is no existing behavior to de-motivate or extinguish. Shots in a four-year-old’s arm and the boring, routine work doled out by the auditor qualify as just such occasions.
What are appropriate rewards? Like everything in design, that depends on the person. Making a game out of the task doesn’t necessarily mean giving away points and badges if the user doesn’t find those incentives appropriate. However, utilizing other incentives, particularly those awarded with an element of variability, can be highly encouraging, just as long as they’re used only in this very specific condition and not as part of day-to-day operations.


Unfortunately, the corporate norm remains drawing up a long list of what needs to get done and throwing it over the email wall to be completed … or else! There will always be tasks people don’t want to do. But there are better ways to motivate others, principally by designing conditions where people actuate themselves.
Fundamentally, people resist being controlled and both the carrot and the stick can be tools for unwanted manipulation. Instead, designing behavior by putting in the forethought to appropriately stage tasks, providing progress indicators, and finally, offering celebratory rewards under the right circumstances, are easy ways to motivate while maintaining a sense of autonomy.
Whether in the doctor’s office or the corner office, it is the job of the person inflicting the pain to do their utmost to ease it. Not doing so is intellectually lazy, whether to a kid or to a colleague. Considering how the receiver could more easily comply with the request is at the heart of inspiring action.
Photo Credit: Corey Ann