Animals!

Evolution has created wild and weird animals. Get to know a few of them.

Pablo Escobar’s hippos: Why drug lords shouldn’t play God

Females run spotted hyena society for a fascinating reason

Sloths: Evolutionary losers or the true jungle king?

On the origin of beauty: Darwin's controversial idea about sex

Giving animals rights enriches our own lives

Is animal cruelty the new slavery? 

The extinct animal Bill Nye would bring back to life

Bill Nye: Zoos enrich our lives but cost animals their dignity 

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  • Research shows hierarchical groups are more likely to use the internet as a platform.
  • This might be counterintuitive, as the original rise of the internet coincided with events like the toppling of top-down structures.
  • Despite the strong belief that the internet is horizontal, these hierarchical systems achieve high levels of online participation.
  • What climate scientists have called a Hothouse Earth emergency, has been called "optimal" by a leading economist.
  • That optimal scenario is based on "the most unrealistic and dangerous assumption in the history of economics."
  • Leading scientists warn strongly against the methods that economists use. "No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach."


A little-known nerd fight might soon seal our fate. It pits prominent scientists who warn we're already in a "climate emergency" against economists who project only limited harms to human welfare. The disagreement is so severe now that many climate scientists "don't trust… the economists." That's how Professor Steve Keen, himself an economist, puts it.

The position of the relevant economists is well summarized in the following two quotes. "The impact of climate change on the economy and human welfare is likely to be limited… in the twenty-first century," said R. Tol in a 2018 survey of integrated climate and economic modeling literature. And in his 2018 Economics Nobel Prize acceptance speech William Nordhaus described a 4 degree C temperature rise as "optimal," leading to a minor 3.6% cut in global economic output — his prize was explicitly for "integrating climate change" into economic models.

Compare that to climate-science models that show a 4 C degree rise risks a catastrophic "Hothouse Earth" scenario (W. Steffen 2018), with large uninhabitable zones, irreversible tipping points, a 10+ meter sea-level rise, and an estimated carrying capacity of ~80% fewer humans (~1 billion people). That hardly seems compatible with maintaining 96.4% of global economic output. Never mind the moral meaning of 6 billion less people alive.

Stopping climate change will pump trillions into the economy

The climate scientists who "don't trust the economists" include W. Steffen a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. He alongside 15 other scientists advises that "theories, tools, and beliefs… [that] focus on economy efficiency, will likely not be adequate." That's an overly diplomatic way of putting Keen's statement more clearly — these scientists warn "strongly against the methods that economists use." Or as another leading climate scientist, Tim Lenton writes, "No amount of economic cost–benefit analysis is going to help us. We need to change our approach."

That focus on economic efficiency is the kind of sophisticated abstraction that sometimes hides bad logic and bad morals (under attractively antiseptic algebra). For example, here the bad logic presumes that how economic output varies by location and temperature today can be used to estimate model coefficients to project into the future. But Hothouse Earth conditions will be radically different from today's (that's like using current Evian sales trends to model the water market in a Mad Max Fury Road world). Keen calls this "the most unrealistic and dangerous assumption in the history of economics," (Averting Systemic Collapse OECD Sept 2019, slide 23) and says the "lack of realism is just breathtaking." The slick surface of economic models can hide mathematized madness and logic that few scientists would find credible.

To see the moral missteps, it usually helps to recast the abstractions in concrete human terms. What economic climate-impact models call "costs" are in reality actual people suffering, i.e., your kids, and billions of other humans having worse and shorter lives. Lurking in "cost benefit" analyses are deeply indecent proposals. Deals with the devil that mask this moral structure: What gain can I offer you to let me worsen your kids' lives? Shouldn't moral "costs" (like shortening your kids' lives) be non-compensable and non-negotiable?

Keen believes that economists like Nordhaus and Tol have contributed to keeping us "paralysed for almost 50 years." Too many political leaders have put too much stock in these climate-trivializing economic models. Perhaps we should join Keen in calling for the removal of mainstream economists (or at least their "laughable" methods) from the IPCC.

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  • The results come from the PISA survey, OECD's triennial study of 15 year-old students across the world.
  • Compared to other OECD member nations, American students performed especially poorly in math.
  • Alarmingly, only 14 percent of American students were able to reliably distinguish fact from opinion in reading tests.


Chinese students far outperformed their international peers in a test of reading, math, and science skills, according to the 2018 results of the Program for International Student Assessment.

The test, administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), was given to 600,000 15-year-olds across 79 countries. It's intended to serve as a global measuring stick for education systems in different parts of the world, and within varying socioeconomic conditions.

The results showed that students from four provinces of China — Beijing, Shanghai, and the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang — earned the highest level 4 rating across all three categories. Students in the U.S. ranked level 3 in reading and science, and level 2 in math.

OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria said the current performance of a nation's students predicts future economic potential.

"The quality of their schools today will feed into the strength of their economies tomorrow."

PISA

However, many developed nations haven't been able to improve education quality over the past two decades, even though "expenditure on schooling rose by more than 15% over the past decade alone," the report states.

"It is disappointing that most OECD countries saw virtually no improvement in the performance of their students since PISA was first conducted in 2000," Gurria said.

Socio-economic background did play a role in the test scores, accounting for 12 percent of the variation in reading performance in each country, on average. But the results also showed that the poorest 10 percent of students in China still outperformed the OECD average. That's perhaps surprising for a country with an average household net adjusted disposable income per capita that's about three times less than the OECD average of about $30,500.

A reading problem in the U.S.

The PISA results showed that 20 percent of American 15-year-olds don't read as well as they should by age 10. Also, the results showed American performance in reading and math has been flat since 2000. That suggests that federal initiatives like No Child Left Behind and Common Core — which have cost billions of federal and private dollars — haven't improved education quality in the U.S.

One of the most surprising findings was that only 14 percent of American students were able to reliably distinguish fact from opinion in reading tests. For example, one exercise asked students to read two pieces of writing: a news article covering scientific research on milk, and a report from the International Dairy Foods Association. The students were then presented various statements about milk, and asked to judge whether they're reading fact or opinion. For example:

"Drinking milk is the best way to lose weight."

Most American students were unable to tell that statements like this represent opinion, not fact. Why? One major factor is technology, the report said.

"In the past, students could find clear and singular answers to their questions in carefully curated and government-approved textbooks, and they could trust those answers to be true. Today, they will find hundreds of thousands of answers to their questions online, and it is up to them to figure out what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong," the report said. "Reading is no longer mainly about extracting information; it is about constructing knowledge, thinking critically and making well-founded judgements."

A former teacher, Elizabeth, from Portland, Maine, told the New York Times that she believed new technologies had shortened students' attention spans over the past couple of decades.

"My conclusion: technology is not always our friend," she wrote. "The newly arrived laptops in our schools were as much a distraction from learning as a tool for learning."

50 different American education systems

Of course, there are many factors that play into American students' relatively poor academic performance: socio-economic conditions, cultural differences, an overemphasis on standardized testing.

One of the reason it's difficult to tell why American students are falling behind is because, unlike many other nations, the U.S. no centralized education authority, meaning there are basically 50 different education systems. Inequalities among those systems will inevitably emerge, especially in underfunded areas, as Henry Braun, an education policy professor at Boston College, told Politifact.

"The reason we don't perform well overall is that we have more students in the lower strata that typically perform more poorly," Braun said. "That's more an indictment of the inequity in our social system than in our educational system."