Earlier today, having nothing better to write about, I wondered how many people believe that it's warmer in summer because the earth is closer to the sun. In a highly unusual display of how the blogosphere is often alleged to work but usually doesn't, Michael O'Hare provides an answer. Or close to an answer anyway: Back in 1987, a documentary filmmaker asked 23 graduating Harvard seniors why summers are so hot, and 21 of them thought it was because the earth was closer to the sun than during winter.

The cynical among you might figure that if 9% of Harvard seniors get this right, maybe the general population would clock in at something more like 20%. But probably not. Most likely, it means that 5% or less of the broad public has any idea why we have seasons.

Interestingly, Mike then brings up an analogous scientific question that I was going to mention because I got it wrong for a very long time myself. Namely, how does an airplane wing work? I had long been under the impression that it had something to do with air traveling faster over the top surface, thus producing a vacuum and generating lift. But just like the orbit of the earth, which is quite obviously not a good explanation for the seasons since it's summer in Australia at the same time it's winter in London, this is quite obviously a lousy explanation for lift since planes can fly upside down.

I felt less bad about this, though, when I realized I was wrong and went looking for the correct explanation. It turns out it's fearsomely complicated. As Mike says:

Unfortunately, a real model of lift involves some very hairy differential equations. If you calculate the pressure difference between the top and bottom of a conventional wing from Bernoulli’s equation, and the implied velocity difference, you do not get the lift on a unit length of wing; you get a meaningless number. The simple model allows something that looks a lot like science (it has an actual quadratic equation!), but this teaching convenience requires students to build a wall between what they know to be true from real observation and what’s expected on the exam.

If you're curious, go here for the common but incorrect (or at least woefully insufficient) explanation of how a wing works. Then go here for a long, but nonmathematical, version of the correct explanation. Oddly enough, both come from the same site. Alternatively, you can watch the video above, which has almost comically exciting Michael Bay-esque production values but is sadly no more accurate than your typical Transformers flick.

Another example of an incorrect but common scientific model is the Bohr atom, in which electrons are treated like planets in orbit around a nucleus. Unfortunately, as wrong as it is, it has some genuine pedagogical usefulness, and I find myself occasionally resorting to it because I know that trying to explain what electron orbitals really look like is just a hopeless task in a casual conversation. I once had a chemistry textbook that showed the shapes of the first dozen or so orbitals on its inside cover, and I wish I still had it. Those pictures are handy, and I've never found them in a convenient place anywhere else.

But does any of this matter? Mike thinks it does:

Very few people have occasion to intervene in aeronautic design or planetary motion [or quantum mechanics –ed.], but there’s a lot more science, like heat transfer in and out of your house, that can hurt you if you don’t really get it, and still more, like climate science, that will hurt all of us if we go on voting in profound ignorance. Teaching science like religion is a practice embedded both in the curriculum and the pedagogy, not to mention how easy it is to test without, like, having to find out whether any actual learning has occurred.

I wish I agreed with this. And of course, I do agree with it. Sort of. But the plain fact is that most of us know virtually nothing, and we've been voting in profound ignorance for a very long time. What's more, I'm aware of very little evidence that a better educated electorate produces better overall governance. But I sure would love to see some. It might restore some of my faith in democracy.

Next up: why do cats always land on their feet?

Quotes of the Year

Fred Shapiro, associate librarian at Yale Law School, has released his sixth annual list of the year's best quotes. Enjoy.

  1. "We are the 99 percent." — slogan of Occupy movement.
  2. "There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for." — U.S. Sen. candidate Elizabeth Warren, speaking in Andover, Mass., in August.

  3. "My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress." — Billionaire Warren Buffett, in a New York Times op-ed on Aug. 15.

  4. "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy." — Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman in an Aug. 18 tweet.

  5. "Oops." — Presidential candidate Rick Perry after unsuccessfully attempting to remember the third federal agency he would eliminate during a Nov. 9 debate.

  6. "When they ask me, `Who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan?' I'm going to say, `You know, I don't know. Do you know?"' — Then-presidential candidate Herman Cain in an interview by Christian Broadcasting Network on Oct. 7.

  7. "I am on a drug. It's called `Charlie Sheen.' It's not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." — Actor Charlie Sheen in a February interview with ABC News.

  8. "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow." — Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' last words on Oct. 5, as reported by his sister Mona Simpson in her eulogy.

  9. "I can't say with certitude." — Then-U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner on June 1 when he was asked whether a lewd photograph was in fact him.

  10. "Instead of receiving the help that she had hoped for, Mr. Cain instead decided to provide her with his idea of a stimulus package." — Lawyer Gloria Allred on Nov. 7 discussing Herman Cain's alleged sexual harassment of her client. 

The lightbulb industry is upset over Republican efforts to halt the new energy efficient lightbulb standards:

Big companies like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania spent big bucks preparing for the standards, and the industry is fuming over the GOP bid to undercut them....Manufacturers are worried that the rider will undermine companies’ investments and “allow potential bad actors to sell inefficient light bulbs in the United States without any fear of federal enforcement,” said Kyle Pitsor, the trade group’s vice president of government relations.

I have multiple reactions to all this:

  • This law was surely accompanied by the worst PR campaign in recent human history. How many people know, even now, that it didn't ban incandescent bulbs and force us all into a Stalinesque hellscape of flickering, antiseptic CFLs? That all it did was set new efficiency standards for incandescent bulbs? Practically no one, judging from the endless wails on the internet.
  • On the other hand, I confess that the unanimous support for these standards from the lighting industry gives me pause. Industries only support laws that will improve their profitability in one way or another, so I assume that this law does exactly that. This is, obviously, not inherently good for consumers.

But put that aside for the moment. Here's what I really want to know, but can't seem to get a firm grip on no matter how hard I try: were these new energy efficient incandescents really going to be available for mass consumption by January 1? Philips EcoVantage bulbs seem to have gotten positive reviews, though they're expensive and it's not clear just how widely they're available. But what about the others? Here's a brief paragraph from LEDs Magazine:

The legislation will initially impact lamps with 1700-lm output (typical of 100W-incandescent lamps) beginning in January, requiring 30% more efficiency. Incandescent lamps would not likely meet those guidelines, making LED-based solid-state lighting (SSL) or compact-fluorescent lamps (CFLs) the primary consumer choice on store shelves.

What's the real story here? Can anyone tell me? If the new bulbs were on track to be available from lots of manufacturers at a reasonable price, then delaying the new law is probably dumb. But if they're not, then delay was probably justified. Here in the real world, what's the skinny?

Winter Is Nigh

Brad DeLong reprints this old piece of dialogue from Calvin and Hobbes:

Calvin: Since September it’s just gotten colder and colder. There’s less daylight now, I’ve noticed too. This can only mean one thing — the sun is going out. In a few more months the Earth will be a dark and lifeless ball of ice.

Dad says the sun isn’t going out. He says it's colder because the earth’s orbit is taking us farther from the sun. He says winter will be here soon.

Isn’t it sad how some people’s grip on their lives is so precarious that they’ll embrace any preposterous delusion rather than face an occasional bleak truth.

Just out of curiosity, I wonder how many people believe that the reason it gets colder in winter is because the Earth is farther away from the sun? This despite the well-known fact that it's currently getting warmer in Australia.

I would like someone to do a survey on this topic. Thank you very much for your consideration.

The spectacle of President Obama practically having to beg Republicans to approve a tax cut beggars the imagination. So when I read last night that the House GOP had decided to turn down the latest payroll tax compromise, I was left speechless. Thus the silence on the blog. This morning, then, I'll turn over the mike to Greg Sargent, who's made of sterner stuff than me:

Conservatives have a variety of explanations for opposing the compromise. One is that it’s only two months. But as Ezra Klein and Steve Benen point out, they won’t agree to a clean year-long extension, which is why the shorter-term one had to be negotiated in the first place. Another claim is that the Senate deal isn’t really a compromise, as GOP Rep. Tom Cole put it. But Republicans got their number one priority — the Keystone XL pipeline — included in the deal, while Democrats dropped their number one demand, i.e., that the extension be paid for by a millionaire surtax. Senate Republicans overwhelmingly supported the deal. If this deal isn’t a compromise, then the word has lost all meaning for conservatives, which may be the real story here.

A third reason is that a two-month extension is bad politics for Republicans. On a conference call, House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy reportedly argued against the compromise partly because it would allow Obama to again browbeat Republicans into extending the tax cut during his State of the Union address in January. Such balanced priorities!

In any case, my advice is the same as always: just pass the tax cut without paying for it. That's both the best and the easiest option. You'll be doing the country a favor and you'll be home in time for the solstice.

Over at Paul Krugman's place, Kim Lane Scheppele describes how the new Hungarian government has consolidated its grip on power by effectively dismantling the judiciary

The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan). Then, the government restricted the jurisdiction of the court so that it can no longer review any law that has an impact on the budget....Finally, the government changed the rules of access to the court so that it will no longer be easily able to review laws in the abstract for their compliance with the constitution.

....The ordinary judiciary has suffered a similar fate. The government lowered the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62....More than 200 judges will be forced to retire from the bench starting on January 1, including most of the court presidents who assign cases and manage the daily workings of courts....The law on the judiciary also creates a new National Judicial Office with a single person at the helm who has the power to replace the retiring judges and to name future judges.

....The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.

This sure does sound familiar. As near as I can tell, Newt Gringrich would approve of all of this. I wonder if anyone's asked him what he thinks of recent events in Hungary?

Is China Next?

Is China about to implode? Paul Krugman is worth a read on the subject, though in the end he doesn't know any better than anyone else. For what it's worth, the one encouraging thing I've consistently read about China is that their property bubble is largely driven by cash purchases, not debt. And non-debt bubbles, like the dotcom bubble, are inherently less destructive when they burst than debt-driven bubbles.

Of course, even a non-debt bubble can cause a lot of damage if it comes on top of an already fragile world economy — an economy that will be more fragile yet if Europe continues along its self-destructive path. It's sort of hard to believe that America might have the best managed large economy in the world, but you know what? We might.

From Public Policy Polling:

Newt Gingrich's campaign is rapidly imploding, and Ron Paul has now taken the lead in Iowa. He's at 23% to 20% for Mitt Romney, 14% for Gingrich, 10% each for Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry, 4% for Jon Huntsman, and 2% for Gary Johnson.

Seriously? Ron Paul is now going to take a turn as the GOP's reigning not-Romney? Republicans are just bound and determined to figure out some way to lose next year, aren't they? If I were a shrink, I'd say they subliminally get more pleasure from wailing about the imminent decline of everything good and true than they do from actually putting one of their own guys into office. This is just bizarre.

The Power of Fish

This is possibly the single most profound passage in Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman's memoir cum valedictory survey of cognitive biases. He's recounting a year that he spent working in Vancouver:

The Canadian government's Department of Fisheries and Oceans had a program for unemployed professionals in Toronto, who were paid to administer telephone surveys. The large team of interviewers worked every night and new questions were constantly needed to keep the operation going. Through Jack Knetsch, we agreed to generate a questionnaire every week, in four color-labeled versions. We could ask about anything; the only constraint was that the questionnaire should include at least one mention of fish, to make it pertinent to the mission of the department.

"Always make sure there's at least one mention of fish." This is, somehow, a metaphor for the entire human condition. Explaining this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Newt Gingrich and God

Newt Gingrich isn't backing down from his jihad against the federal court system, and yesterday he said this:

When pressed as to whether a president could ignore any court decision he didn’t like, such as if President Obama ignored a ruling overturning his healthcare law, Gingrich said the standard should be “the rule of two of three,” in which the outcome would be determined by whichever side two of the three branches of government were on.

That's fascinating, isn't it? Unless I'm misremembering my lessons from Schoolhouse Rock, just about every law ever passed was approved by two out of three branches of the government. So this means the Supreme Court would never be allowed to overturn a law. Surely even Gingrich doesn't believe such a thing?

Apparently not. In fact, he wants the judiciary to be independent 99% of the time — which brings to mind all the usual jokes about being a little bit pregnant — and defines the 1% this way:

Another branch would step in, Gingrich said, when a judge or a court makes a decision that is “strikingly at variance with America.”

Even for Newt this is crazy stuff. I've heard of strict scrutiny and original intent and reasonable doubt, but I've never heard of the "strikingly at variance with America" rule. But not to worry. If you read more about Newt's views on this, it turns out that "strikingly at variance with America" isn't nearly as vague as you think it is. What it really means is any court decision dealing with religion in the public square. Newt wants religion front and center in the public square and he wants it funded and fully endorsed by any level of government that's so minded. And woe betide the judge who tries to get in the way.

That's pretty much it. Oh, he also makes some noises about decisions that restrict the president's power to handle enemy combatants any way he wants, but it's really nativity scenes and prayer in public school that animate him on this subject. He doesn't just want America to be a Christian nation, he wants to make sure the government is allowed to marshal all of its considerable resources to ensure it is a Christian nation without any pesky courts getting in the way. He's a visionary, Newt is.