September 9, 2014

Why I’m Against Privatizing the National Weather Service

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:18 pm

Note:  This was an essay for a seminar.  I thought it turned out pretty well, though, so I’m putting it online too.


The issue of the proper role of government is an extremely controversial—and often emotional—topic in the United States today.  Lines are drawn and sides are staked out, with people on both sides often taking a hard-line principled stance, looking only at resources supporting their own position, and applying their principled belief no matter what the circumstance.  Over the past thirty years, this overarching debate has come to include a governmental agency whose function had not been questioned previously:  the National Weather Service.  Since 1983, the idea of cutting taxpayer funding for the National Weather Service and related agencies, and turning over their operations to private companies, has periodically surfaced.  The proposal has taken two primary forms:  the suggestion of cutting funding for forecasting operations with the expectation that private firms would take over the task, and the suggestion of selling weather satellites or other sources of weather data to the highest bidder and buying back the data that the sources generated.

History of the National Weather Service

The National Weather Service (NWS) originated after the American Civil War with the advent of a national telegraph system.  For the first time, weather observations could be transmitted immediately.  The science of meteorology had also advanced to the point that scientists studying the atmosphere knew that they would need observations from a broad geographical area in order to apply physical principles and produce a weather forecast, and the new technology had finally made this possible.  In 1870, President Grant signed a bill of Congress authorizing the creation of a government agency to collect these observations from official stations and issue notice to downstream areas about incoming storms.  The agency was initially part of the Department of War (now named the Department of Defense), but late in 1890, it was moved to the Department of Agriculture, a civilian agency, and renamed the Weather Bureau.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Weather Bureau steadily improved its forecasting capabilities with the addition of new technologies for gathering data and a continuous refinement of its numerical weather prediction tools.  The invention of the computer in the 1940s provided an obvious opportunity, and in 1950, the first computer was, in fact, used to produce the first computer-generated weather forecast.  In 1954, an inter-agency group of specialists formed the Joint Numerical Weather Prediction Unit, which processed weather observations from ground stations and began to generate basic forecasts on the computer.  Radar made its mark on the government’s weather-related agencies in the 1950s as well, and in 1960, the launch of the first weather satellite provided a source of observations from far above the troposphere.  In 1970, in the 100th year after its formation, the Weather Bureau—which had been moved to the Department of Commerce five years earlier in recognition of the profound impact of weather on commerce—became known as the National Weather Service.

(Read more…)

July 21, 2014

Types of Climate-Change Skepticism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 9:03 pm

As a meteorologist, I’ve obviously got some thoughts about anthropogenic climate change.  Let’s get those out of the way first, so that it’s clear exactly where I am coming from.  (Also, there is an increasing trend, with political polarization, for people to simply name-call in “response” to a viewpoint with which they disagree.  To the point of view of a typical grassroots activist conservative/tea party type, anyone who disagrees with that ideology in any point whatsoever is a “lib” or some such.  To the viewpoint of a typical grassroots activist progressive, anyone who disagrees with anything in that ideology is a “bagger.”  With us or against us, ally or enemy, no nuance.  It is pathetic and utterly contemptible.  But I digress.)  I do not question the science of anthropogenic climate change.  I take extreme offense to one particular form of skepticism of this hypothesis, in fact… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I accept the science, but I do not particularly agree with the usual prescriptions for addressing it.  I don’t think that it is even viable to demand that everyone give up their cars, stop eating meat, reduce a first-world standard of living to a less advanced one, and move to “sustainable” urban box apartments, let alone that it would be a horrendous overreach to make such demands.  Keep out of my garage and thermostat!  Furthermore, at this point, even if the first world dropped emissions to 0, climate change would still continue because of the gas that is already in the atmosphere.  It takes a very long time for it to filter out.  I think the real solution to the problem is geoengineering to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and improvement of technologies to limit emissions (without sacrificing quality of life).  Technology caused this problem and I think technology is going to have to solve it.

Anyway, that’s the viewpoint I’m coming from.  I don’t have a lot of real allies in political circles on this subject, needless to say.  The political activists who are in agreement with me about the science mostly completely disagree with me about what to do about it (for reasons that I suspect have nothing to do with concern over the issue).  Maybe one of these days I will go after the “sustainability” crowd, who are largely deeply opposed to geoengineering, for their anti-scientific beliefs that control-freak government intervention into people’s private lives will even matter (climatologists say it won’t anymore), but that’s not the subject of this post.  This post is about the other side of the coin:  the climate-change skeptics.  It is, let us say, a taxonomy of the types of skepticism currently out there, from least anti-scientific to most.

“It’s the sun” and other alternative, but disproven, hypotheses about the cause

You don’t see too many of these people anymore, but they were abundant a number of years ago.  They did not dispute the data indicating that warming was taking place, nor that carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere was on the rise, nor—in many cases—that weather events were becoming more extreme as a result of the changes.  They just disputed the primary hypothesis about the root cause, namely, man.  Instead they offered other suggestions, the most common one being the idea that the sun was increasing its radiation output.  The increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was proposed as an effect of warming rather than the cause (which is scientifically plausible).

The solar hypothesis was scientific.  It was clear, defined, and testable—other effects, such as warming of all layers of the atmosphere, would have been observed, and the radiative output of the sun can itself be measured quite minutely—and therefore scientifically respectable.  Adherents of the anthropogenic hypothesis owe these types of skeptics gratitude for proposing it, in fact, because it was an idea that needed to be either validated or disproven before the anthropogenic hypothesis could move forward.  It was a rational thing to suggest.

It was just incorrect, as we now know.  The sun’s radiative output isn’t on the rise, and all layers of the atmosphere are not warming.  The warming/cooling pattern of the entire atmosphere follows the prediction of the anthropogenic hypothesis instead.

I have focused on the solar hypothesis, but if some other scientific hypothesis were to come forward that might explain the data, what I have said would apply to it also.  I respect this type of skepticism, and so should every scientist.  It has a fine tradition in the history of science and serves a great purpose even when the skeptical alternate hypotheses turn out to be incorrect.

“It’s a natural cycle,” a pseudo-scientific excuse that sounds scientific to people who don’t know better

You might have noticed a stark difference in tone between that heading and the previous one.  There’s a reason for that.  The second group of climate-change skeptics are more respectable than the third (which I’ll get to) because they don’t deny the climatic data record, but the explanation that they propose for it is not scientifically legitimate.  “It is a natural cycle” is essentially a tautology to science, which is about the predictable—i.e., cyclical with the same circumstances—workings of nature.  Taken literally, it is an acknowledgment that the phenomenon belongs in the domain of natural science, which we already know!  With the context and connotation specific to climate change, this non-explanation amounts to little more than saying, “I don’t know what it is, but I don’t believe it’s what they say it is.”

Natural cycles in meteorology and climatology obviously exist.  However, in order for a proposed cycle to be accepted in the scientific canon, actual details about it—with supporting observational evidence—must be provided.  Otherwise it is not testable, not defined, and simply not a scientific hypothesis.  It is an excuse for saying “I don’t know and I’ve got nothing.”

Any proposed explanation, or hypothesis, for a set of observed data should be testable.  That means an additional set of observations can be gathered that either confirms or refutes the hypothesis (within a statistical confidence interval).  Granted, within the past few decades, the rise of progressive ideology in academia has caused postmodernist relativistic philosophy to—I’ll say to contaminate discourse about science, because I, along with almost all scientists I know, remain firmly an old-school empiricist.  If the methodology is sound, there’s no relativistic “catch” about the data gathered.  Postmodernist philosophers of science can debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, but we empiricists will consider the radius of the pinhead and the Planck length and give an exact number, in the meantime. ;) In the domain of actual scientific experimentation, especially in the realms of natural science, empiricism still rules the roost.  This means that data rule the roost, and the claim “it’s a natural cycle” with no additional explanation of what the supposed “cycle” consists of is not something for which data can even be tested.  There is no specific claim made, so there is nothing to test.

The deniers and defamers:  “They’re all making up their observations to get grant money!”

This is the type of skepticism that I said I took extreme offense to, and I am not going to be charitable toward these people.  They are attacking the integrity of my entire discipline with no supporting evidence, and I do not owe any politeness to people who are calling my people a bunch of frauds.

It, unfortunately, seems to be on the upswing.  I suspect this is because of the political polarization that I mentioned in the very first paragraph.  The people saying this crap tend to be complete scientific illiterates, most commonly political talking heads/columnists and their legions of trained keyboard warriors.  They have a conspiracy theory mindset in which only their approved sources of “information” can be trusted and everything else is in on the conspiracy to undermine their ideology.  If the trusted people—the columnists and talking heads—say that climate scientists go to the Arctic and make up data because they love living high on the hog with their grant money, well, the keyboard ignorati will believe that without question and repeat it.

There was a scandal in the UK about climate scientists saying suspicious-sounding things in e-mails.  “Climategate,” as it was dubbed, was investigated thoroughly, and no scientific misconduct was found.  The infamous phrase “hide the decline” referred to minimizing the contamination of a climate data set by a poor source of historical data.  Why use poor data?  Well, because when it comes to any period before the Enlightenment in any area of the globe other than the West, there really aren’t human-recorded weather observations to speak of, and we use what we have in nature.  We know that some are better than others.  It is scientifically sound to discount less reliable observations in a data pool.

A character defamation suit by climatologist Michael Mann against a right-wing magazine and a writer for it is (to my knowledge) currently underway.  This rag apparently alleged that Mann falsified his data.  Again, there was a very early (late 1990s) Nature article with Mann as lead author that had some historical climate graphs of dubious statistical quality.  He has done work in the field since then, and in any case, a poor article in a borderline pop-sci magazine (as opposed to a journal of climatology, which would have higher standards) is certainly not the final word in climatology.  To hear these deniers say it, though, it is the underlying foundation of a house of cards that they clearly believe is anthropogenic climate change theory.

In sum, the skeptics who propose alternative, but scientifically testable, hypotheses about the data are respectable.  They are carrying on a long tradition of contributing to the scientific enterprise, and it really isn’t fair for ideological keyboard warriors on the other side of the aisle to bash them.  The skeptics who propose the excuse “theory” of some unspecified “natural cycle” are at least respectful of the data, but they are not operating within a true scientific framework, and they are probably further muddying the understanding of laypeople of just how the scientific profession works.  However, the skeptics who deserve no respect whatsoever, the ones who are actively undermining science by claiming that it is just part of a grand conspiracy to suppress their political ideology, are the ones who make unfounded accusations against the character of researchers.

I’ve said before that proven research fraud is a career-ender in science.  The ironic thing about these jerks is that their stream of offensive character defamation might actually make it harder for actual frauds to be rooted out in any area of science.  People have a tendency to protect their own “tribe” when they are under attack, and it is conceivable that the calls of “fraud” from people with a political agenda could harden even empirically minded scientists against the idea of appearing to cede anything to a pack of rabid dogs who are clearly not motivated by a desire for integrity within science.  Why give them fuel, one might reason.  Distrust of the first type of skeptics, the ones who are respectable, might be a casualty as well, and that would be unfortunate.  These are yet more possible outcomes of the vast and destructive reach of political polarization.  Not all climate skeptics are created equal, and it’s important to sort out the ones worth listening to from the ones who deserve the back of your hand.

June 21, 2014

Alleging a Conflict of Interest Does Not Discredit Research

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 12:02 am

A few days ago I wrote that the new populism was an anti-expert phenomenon that discounted, often even disparaged, the skills of negotiation and compromise in politics.  As it turns out, the new populism is also deeply anti-scientific, given that it appears to have just as little comprehension of the logic involved in the scientific research enterprise.  I’m speaking in particular of the practice of attempting to discredit a study by claiming that the researchers had a financial conflict of interest.  This assertion is thrown around whenever a piece of research comes out with a conclusion that a given side doesn’t like.  And the grassroots on both left and right do it.

On the right, this is prominently shown in the climate change denial crowd.  Even on FOX News, hardly a grassroots-based source, climatology studies that show warming and indicate a very high probability of its being due to human activity are dismissed on the grounds that “those scientists get grant money that’s contingent on them coming to that conclusion.”  The tea party foot soldiers (or keyboard warriors, more typically) repeat this claim ad nauseam.  On the left, this behavior is most commonly found among the anti-big-agriculture crowd.  A study comes out that finds that a dietary bogeyman of the left really isn’t bad?  Well, the study must have been influenced by Big Ag, so therefore it can be dismissed among the faithful without a second thought.

The term “conflict of interest” is thrown at scientists by these people, and they fail to realize (or more probably, simply don’t believe) that even if a researcher was receiving funding from a source that has an interest in the research conclusions, that does not discredit the research.  In fact, you can’t find any scientist anywhere who doesn’t have a “conflict of interest” of some variety.  In most sciences, positive findings (in science, this means finding a real effect instead of failing to do so) are a lot more likely to be published than null findings.  Scientists therefore have a personal interest in seeing positive results.  Scientists can also have a personal conflict of interest that is ideological rather than financial.  There is no such thing as a truly detached, objective human being, and the political populist squawking about “conflicts of interest” in science amounts to little more than the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem.

What matters for assessing the credibility of research are the methodology of the research and whether the study can be replicated.  Does it “look bad” for, say, the corn industry to contribute funding to research indicating that high-fructose corn syrup isn’t harmful in moderation?  Well, yeah, it does.  But “how it looks” means NOTHING in the scientific method.  If there is a problem in the way that the study was done, then call that out.  If there isn’t an obvious problem but the study cannot be replicated by other researchers, then it might be time to question whether the claimed methodology was the actual one.  But in the absence of these other issues with the research, going after the people who paid for the study doesn’t prove a thing about its validity.

As an example, a couple of years ago, a right-wing think tank funded a sociologist to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to conduct a survey into the personal outcomes of adult children who had been raised by various types of families.  The study was, for a little while, used in court cases to support denying marriage to gay couples.  The claim made was that people who grew up in these households had poor life outcomes in the surveyed areas.  Naturally, there was pushback against this study, due to the political nature of its topic.  The type of pushback that ultimately went nowhere (and rightly so) was that which was based on attacking the funding source and asserting “conflict of interest.”  The pushback that was successful was to go after the methodology of the study.  As it turned out, the people that the researcher and his allies were claiming had been “raised by gay couples” were almost entirely from broken homes in which one parent was gay but was originally in a doomed marriage with an opposite-sex person.  The real takeaway from the study was that gay people shouldn’t marry straight people and definitely shouldn’t have kids with them, because—no particular surprise—kids from broken homes tended to have more issues than kids who grew up in happy families.  Making attacks on the source of the funding didn’t discredit the conclusions that were being bandied about; going after the methodology and finding that it did not support the claimed conclusions was what did the trick.  (And, as a footnote, some ideologues among the critics did not at all like that the more scientifically minded critics urged them to knock it off with the irrelevant attacks on the funder and focus on methodological problems.  This is another anecdote in support of my conviction that there is a strongly anti-scientific strain among modern-day grassroots political activists.)

The final problem with ideologues claiming “conflict of interest = discredited study” is this:  It is an implicit allegation that the scientists involved in the work committed research fraud to please their funders.  This is an incredibly serious allegation to make, the gravity of which these ideologues apparently have not a clue.  Deliberate research fraud is a permanent career-ender in science.  The world of scientific peer review is based on an honor system that what the researchers claimed they did is what they actually did.  (Replication of studies bolsters the system, but again, there is a preference for positive original research, so a lot of replication studies don’t get published.  There is awareness of this problem in the scientific community and steps are being taken to address it.)  If a person wants to claim that a scientist committed research fraud, this claim is so serious that the claimant had better have proof of it.  And yet, political activists with a definite conflict of interest (the desire to see certain results so that they are not disturbed in their ideological convictions) toss it around implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) without the slightest regard for what they are saying.

The net result of this ignorant, slanderous, conspiracy-theorist, and scientifically irrelevant line of attack has been an undermining of the trust in certain areas of science, depending on where a person falls on the political spectrum.  In other words, they’ve touched science and managed to poison it too in the public mind.  So yes, between the bad logic and a destructive mode of skepticism that completely undermines the foundation of the scientific method, I think I am entirely justified in saying that there is an anti-scientific current running through the new populism.

June 19, 2014

Good and Bad Populism

Filed under: Politics — PolitiCalypso @ 3:59 pm

Those who know me know that, over the past couple of years, I’ve become profoundly anti-populist.  This has been a result of the antics of the tea party and new progressives—the obstruction, “my way or the highway” purist mentality, a utopian mindset, the use of America’s capital city as a slur, and the putting up of “the people” (or “the grassroots”—because they only approve of their sort of people, you see) on a pedestal, as if the problems in Washington aren’t a direct result of the increase in polarizing ideologues sent by, yes, “the people.”

Recently there have even been calls for these two factions to ally when possible, because they’re not that different.  I would agree that they’re not that different.  Both want to establish some sort of utopian society (“if everyone just followed our rules, we’d have a perfect world”) and have few reservations about how far to go in doing so.  There seems to be general agreement that rights don’t exist unless their exercise serves to advance “the good of society” (according to their utopian definition).  The person must justify a right to the state instead of the state having the burden of proof for restricting that right.  As an example, grassroots progressives seem to have no problem making the argument “because we have quasi-universal health insurance now, and everyone pays for your coverage, I have the right to legislate your lifestyle.”  (Risk pooling is how insurance works.)  Social conservative tea partiers (I specify this because there are still a few tea party-identified libertarians, and while I disagree with some of their views, they are not trying to set up an authoritarian utopia) want to restrict which adults are allowed to marry or become parents (and some want to take away the right to not have children—yes, there are anti-contraception social conservatives, Rick Santorum most prominent) because of their opinion of what household type is “best for society.”  These are far from the only examples of a behavior-controlling agenda, and the use of “we’re all connected, so your private behavior isn’t really private” as a reason to do it is the slippery slope from Hell.  Maybe it isn’t great for obesity and single parenthood to be widespread, but people have the right to be those things, so that’s no reason to apply the stick instead of the carrot.  And it certainly isn’t a reason to apply that stick to, respectively, naturally thin people and committed gay couples because of some belief (unsupported by evidence) that a BMI of 19 or a married straight couple are the only things that directly “benefit society.”  Yes, the new progressives and the social conservative wing of the tea party do have a great deal in common.

And it is precisely because of what the similarities are that I really hope these two populist utopian movements don’t figure out how to work together.  If this is being set up as “the new populism” versus “the establishment,” well, I know what side of the fence I want to be on:  the side that recognizes that governing and politics, like any other profession, require skills and experience.  Becoming a scientist has given me a new perspective on the value of skills and experience.  For politics, I’m talking about skills like the ability to shake the hand and strike a deal with someone in the opposing party rather than viewing it as treason to an ideology.  The piecemeal approach of tackling issues individually rather than as part of some grand plan to reengineer society into a utopia.  Maybe—thoughtcrime incoming—the willingness to listen to what policy experts, a.k.a. lobbyists, have to say about the policies that they are trying to influence, rather than a group of armchair activists who only “know” the canned ideological talking points promoted by the Facebook page and blogs of the advocacy group that’s using their numbers as muscle.

No, I don’t really like the new populism very much.  It puts amateurism on a pedestal in the political sphere, implying that “outsiders” with no knowledge of how to get things done are somehow “purer” and morally better, when in fact politics is a skilled profession like many others and the skill of an individual is quite distinct from that person’s character.

However, I want to be fair.  Not all populist movements are a bad thing.  In fact, a case can be made that many advances on certain issues throughout American (and any other country with Western-style republican democracy) history ultimately had roots in a populist movement.  The push for universal suffrage was a big one.  The call to eradicate slavery.  The movement to have national parks set aside.  The call for environmental regulations and worker safety regulations.  They haven’t all been on the “left” either; in eastern European countries, the fall of communism was helped along by a capitalistic, libertarian-aligned protest populist movement.

These “good” populist movements, you may notice, were mostly focused on a single issue, and they worked within a democratic-republican system of government.  They achieved their goals through advocacy, voting, and successfully defending their accomplishments as Constitutional in the courts.  They didn’t try to remake the whole system and certainly did not have an “anything goes” mentality for pushing their agenda through.  The anti-communist populist movement did work outside the system, but that was because the system was itself authoritarian.

History is full of examples of populist movements that sought to overthrow or reengineer a whole country, and it rarely judged them well, even if the system that they sought to replace was also repressive.  The French Revolutionaries are a fine example of that; the autocratic French aristocracy was a repressive system, but once the revolutionaries got power, the system they set up was just as bad.  The Bolsheviks are another example of this.  It should be noted that these revolutionary movements that started off sympathetic (because the existing system was repressive and autocratic) and went the way of Animal Farm are often left-wing in nature.  On the right, of course the most prominent example is the Nazi movement.  (I am categorizing it as right-wing because, regardless of how socialistic some of their economic ideas were, you only benefited from it if you were their approved type of human; it was all in service of an extremely nationalistic, racist, sexist, right-wing social agenda.)  They took power by democratic means rather than a coup, but their goals were just as utopian as their analogues on the populist left.  Democratic ascents to power aren’t always the case with right-wing populism, and we need not look any farther than Central and South America for that.

In fact, the revolutionary populist movement that history seems to have judged the most kindly is the American one of the 1770s.  And that is because, when they achieved power, they did not set up a repressive system, nor did they seek to completely remake society.  American law really isn’t all that different from British Common Law.  The beef of the revolutionaries was that Britain wasn’t living up to its own ideals, not that those ideals themselves needed to go (except for the notion of monarchy and a parliamentary system of elections).

This is why single-issue populism in democratic countries generally ends just fine.  It recognizes the value of these ideals and wants to work within that framework.  It is probably why populist movements to overthrow a truly repressive system generally become just as bad as what they threw out; a totalitarian set of ideas is their point of reference.  And it is why populist movements to establish a utopia over a country that is already democratic-republican tend to end worst of all.

I wish that the current populist movements in the U.S. were still the first type, but I do not think they are any longer.  Ideology is rapidly becoming a package deal:  If you believe that there should be some safety and environmental regulations on business practice, you’re probably going to buy the whole progressive “package” with it.  If you believe that welfare is being abused and something needs to be done about it, you’re probably buying the whole social conservative “package.”  And both sides will have long, wordy explanations for why you “logically” must accept the whole package if you accept one piece of it, which they then use to justify the ostracism of moderates, crossovers, and anyone who deals with the other party on respectful terms.  This is not about single-issue advocacy; this is about grand plans for remaking society.  It disturbs and frightens me, and I am not going to support it.

January 17, 2012

Thoughts On SOPA

Filed under: Politics,Sci/Tech — PolitiCalypso @ 10:49 pm

I’m not blacking out my website.

Color me jaded, cynical, or whatever adjective you choose—if it’s a synonym of that general sort, it’s almost certainly correct—but I just don’t have much—no, any—faith in the effectiveness of boycotts or protests.  That’s part of the reason why I’m not taking part in this.  I’m not going to try to convince anyone else not to shut down their site in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), however.  To each his own.

The other part of my decision not to black my site out is that, while I am absolutely against SOPA/PIPA (the Protect IP Act), I don’t particularly regard the Silicon Valley side of this as snow white and sparkly clean either, and I don’t do “solidarity” with a group that I regard as partially to blame for the very thing they are organized against.

Why do I say that?  Primarily, there are two reasons:  Large, legitimate online retailers that turn a blind eye to piracy under their own roofs (so to speak), and the relentless push of the Internet lobby for digital-only media.

Without naming names, let me just say that there are two rather large and well-known websites that let private individuals sell items, including movies and music CDs, over their domain name, and these sites take a certain percentage of every sale that these users make.  These sites do have a ratings-based system whereby users can downrate people who deal in pirated materials (or otherwise are unsatisfactory), and they can revoke seller accounts, but you see the problem, I am sure.  This system requires that some people spend money on pirated materials before this fact can be known to the broader user base.  Although they take a cut out of the sale, these sites do not guarantee purchases made by private users from private users.  On one hand, it is understandable; it would, after all, be very easy for somebody to make a purchase of legitimate material, pirate a DVD themselves, and then claim that it came from the private seller, and there would be no way to prove otherwise.  But the fact remains that if (for some reason) you want a collection of pirated DVDs, the best websites to get them from are based right in the U.S.A., and the companies cannot be unaware of this fact.  This makes me seriously question if the websites to which I am referring have other motives for opposing SOPA/PIPA than merely opposition to censorship.  (Told you I was cynical.)

The other issue is a more subtle one, and it’s one I haven’t seen addressed at great length anywhere.  I have deep misgivings about the push for everything—movies, music, and books—to be shifted over to digital-only format and for the physical items to be phased out.  This is one thing that the Internet lobby has been pushing for ever since the Napster era, claiming that “big media hasn’t kept pace with changes in the marketplace” represented by the Internet and digital media, and now that we’re arriving at that very destination with piracy unabated, I lay the blame squarely in their lap.

The biggest problem with digital-only media is that it creates a one-way, top-down marketplace.  For movies and e-books, if you buy something, that’s it.  It’s yours.  You can’t resell it.  If you had bought that book or movie (or CD) in a physical format, you could turn around and sell it to someone else who might like it better, or to a resale store, and everyone wins.  You get the money back that you spent, somebody else gets the product they wanted, and unless it is a direct transaction, another business benefits from the sale as well, which helps the broader economy.  In an e-edition-only marketplace, there are only a few legitimate retailers from which to buy media, and it’s very difficult for a new business to become licensed and compete with these giants.  Consumers are eternally consumers; they cannot become sellers themselves.  This is what the Internet lobby has pushed upon us by promoting digital media not as an adjunct, but to the exclusion of physical media, and pushing the idea that physical media of all varieties are hopelessly obsolete.  It was a fine idea for music; music albums are collections of individual, distinct items that usually stand on their own.  People wanted to buy songs individually, and now they can.  They didn’t particularly care about the CD itself, and they also didn’t particularly care about whether the song was played on a stereo system or a computer as long as the sound was good.  However, movies and most books are not collections of disparate items.  They are unified pieces of work.  Unlike music, they are engrossing; it’s not easy to do other things while reading a book or (especially) watching a movie.  And there is a natural way to watch a movie or read a book, and it does not involve a computer.  (Not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done on a computer, of course, just that this isn’t the natural way to do it, especially for movies where a family or group of friends all view it together.)  But there has been no distinction made between the way albums, as opposed to books and movies, are created and used, and practically no recognition of the fact that what works for one (digital-only sales) may not work so well for the others.

Incidentally, problem 1 and problem 2 end up feeding upon each other.  When trust in third-party sellers is undermined because large websites do not properly police the users whose sales they profit from, people are not going to want to buy from private individuals or small shops through these venues.  They’ll buy certain types of products (particularly DVDs, Blu-Rays, and CDs) only from the “official” retailer itself rather than risk spending money on a pirated copy.  I know this is true for me, and I can vouch for another person in my family who has said the same.  And I can understand how many people would become impatient, and rather than waiting for the movie to arrive in the mail, would simply purchase a digital copy instead.  And I also rather suspect that some people would simply download a pirated digital movie instead of buying anything at all.

That’s why, while I do indeed oppose SOPA/PIPA, I am not going to turn a blind eye to the sins of the Internet lobby that is also on that side.  Now, what about the other side?  Surely you didn’t think I would let them off scot-free.

There is no doubt in my mind that the entertainment industry would love to have sole control over sales of their products, completely eliminating middlemen and resales.  After all, if you buy a movie, don’t care for it, and resell it to a friend, then that’s one net purchase from the viewpoint of Hollywood.  If you and your friend bought digital copies because you couldn’t sell yours, that’s two net purchases.  The entertainment industry’s numbers alleging enormous losses to piracy are quite questionable (they assume that everyone who pirates something automatically would have bought it if pirating hadn’t been an option, which is absolutely false), but I don’t think it’s because they don’t know how to do math.  While the large websites that I was alluding to above benefit financially from piracy by taking a cut of all sales (including of pirated materials) made through their servers, Hollywood would probably want even legitimate resales of material eliminated.  I’m sure they’d want to have total control over sales.  Anyone who thinks that just because they are business, they are in favor of “the free market,” needs a reality check.  They are in favor of their own bottom line.  They are not in favor of competition.  It’s against their self-interest.  They are in the “contest.”

And finally, I think a good case could be made that certain kinds of activity that are technically piracy—oh, yes—benefit sales of movies and music, and the entertainment industry would do well to take advantage of this.  I doubt this applies to the people who steal torrents of full DVDs, but it is highly plausible that, after enjoying watching a movie or listening to a song that was uploaded to YouTube (you know you’ve done it), a person would want to go out and buy a perfect, high-quality, complete copy of it.  I certainly would; in fact, I’d regard it as an obligation to support the people responsible for the piece of art.  I’m a writer.  I thoroughly understand and agree with the right of creative individuals to be compensated for their work.  However, people like to know what they are buying, and that must be considered too.  I produce creative work, but if I had a published manuscript, I’d also be involved in the business of selling it (through the publisher), and with a business decision comes the need to consider what your buyers want.  If they want to know what they’re buying and won’t buy it unless they have the opportunity, the logical thing to do from a business standpoint is to let them try it out.  Would our hypothetical movie-streaming person have made the purchase if he or she had not found that “rip” online and liked it?  Sometimes yes, if there were recommendations given from sources that he trusted, but not always.  (The notion that he always would have, as I said earlier, is the big fallacy in the entertainment industry’s accounting for the costs of piracy.)  When people go shopping for clothes, they often like to try them on and see how they look before they make the purchase.  When people buy cars, they do a test drive first.  In bookstores, people can sit and even read the whole book (if they have time) before buying it!  Of course, the “try before you buy” analogy isn’t true for every type of product, but those products for which it is not true usually are either returnable (such as things like tools) or perishable (food) anyway.

Wait, you might say; that’s what Netflix et al. do!  That’s what Amazon Prime does!  And you’re right.  You will also note that these companies have been runaway successes.  (It’s also worth noting, however, that for books, a completely free method of “trying before buying” is available:  a library.)  If sites such as YouTube (which is owned by Google, hardly a struggling little company) also had a partnership with the entertainment industry whereby they could stream movies at comparatively low quality legally and through a protocol that did not allow for video files to be downloaded via browser plugins, I bet it’d do spectacularly.  In point of fact, this is done for music; a great many artists have official YouTube pages where their music videos, concert performances, and sometimes even whole albums are streamed over YouTube at no cost to the end user.  For movies, make it ad-supported; TV channels stick commercials in movies they show, after all.  Watermark them, for that matter.  Encrypt them so that the commercials cannot be edited out.  These are just a few ideas off the top of my head for making a system like this work, and these measures need not affect the videos on these sites that truly are user-created original work.  Those could stay as they are.  Though I have said I disagree with the push to make media sales digital-only, I concede that the web lobby does have a legitimate point that the entertainment industry needs to keep pace with Internet technology.  This would essentially set up a web-based system strikingly similar to cable/satellite TV showings of movies over hundreds of channels, though augmented, as users could choose from a much broader catalog online.  If they liked a movie, they could then go and buy a proper copy uninterrupted by commercials.

It’s very easy, especially in this day of black and white thinking, to take a side on an issue like this and regard everything your chosen side says and does as absolutely Right, both factually and morally.  It’s also very easy to take a simple step such as putting up a black page, redirecting your whole website to it, and calling this a protest.  It’s not so easy to think long and hard about the issue and all those who have stakes in it.

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