289 – Interpreting evidence through an ideological lens

Humans are prone to “confirmation bias”, meaning that when we see evidence, we tend to interpret it in a way that reinforces our existing beliefs. I felt I was observing confirmation bias in action when I observed a recent article that discussed some research we conducted. 

The tendency for confirmation bias is so strong that, in some cases, people who hold opposing views can both find support for their conflicting positions from exactly the same evidence, resulting in attitude polarisation. I would guess that this phenomenon has probably contributed to the polarization of attitudes to climate change, for example.

Occasionally I see an example of my own research being interpreted in a way that seems to exhibit confirmation bias. A recent example is our research showing that farmers in central Victoria, on average, pay more for land that includes some native woody vegetation, compared with land that is fully cleared (Polyakov et al. 2015 and see PD#287). There was some nice press coverage of the research (here and here), some social media attention, and also a brief article published on “Freedom Watch”, a web site published by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).

The IPA describes itself as “the voice of freedom” and on the Freedom Watch site the published articles cover issues such as freedom of speech and legal restrictions on various freedoms, including laws that restrict racial discrimination, live betting ads, and political donations. Of course, different people have different opinions on the sorts of restrictions to freedom that are discussed by the IPA, but the authors of articles on the site would tend to be at one end of the spectrum of public opinion about these issues.

ipaSo it was interesting to see the article by Lorraine Finlay (a Law Lecturer at Murdoch University) titled “We don’t need laws to tell farmers to like trees”. In the article she claims that “the strident environmental lobby … will tell you that farmers basically hate trees” and “This is the reason that we apparently need punitive native vegetation legislation across the country.” She rhetorically asks “if the private market values native vegetation, why does government have to interfere at all?” and suggests that “Rather than stripping away private property rights by imposing punitive native vegetation legislation, perhaps we would achieve better environmental outcomes by actually working cooperatively with our farmers.”

Now I’m an economist, so I’m certainly favourably predisposed towards free markets, and I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that we should avoid having laws that needlessly restrict freedoms, but this article really feels like the evidence has been shoehorned to support a pre-determined position. For a start, the premises of the article are questionable. I’ve worked on issues of agriculture and the environment for many years, in the process dealing with people from many different environmental organisations, and I’ve never heard anybody say that farmers hate trees. Maybe some environmentalists do think that, but the great majority of people who are concerned with environmental issues in rural areas have a much more realistic and nuanced understanding of farmers’ attitudes towards trees.

The claim that farmers’ hatred of trees is put forward as the reason for legal restrictions on land clearing is specious. Those arguing for these legal restrictions don’t need to invoke a non-existent hatred of trees. The real argument is that there are public benefits from preservation of native vegetation that are not sufficiently factored into the farmers’ private decisions about land clearing. The public benefits include conservation of threatened species or ecological communities, reduced salinity in waterways, and aesthetic benefits. Why does government have to interfere at all? Because, with so little native vegetation left in many regions, the marginal value of protecting it is likely to be very high, so that the public benefits of the legislation are likely to far outweigh the private costs. Even though farmers like some trees, when the benefits to the rest of the community are factored in, the optimal area of trees is larger than farmers would select for themselves. Economists describe this situation as “market failure”, since the aggregated decisions of private individuals do not add up to the best outcome for society as a whole.

Lorraine Finlay’s argument that we should work cooperatively with farmers makes me wonder whether she’s aware of existing programs that do just that. Ever since the start of the National Landcare Program in around 1990, there have continuously been major national programs built on working closely with farmers to improve environmental outcomes. That long experience has shown us that the voluntary/cooperative approach can work effectively up to a point, but is less successful for the more challenging environmental issues that are more expensive to deal with, like salinity and biodiversity conservation. It doesn’t necessarily follow that legislation is the best response, or that the system we have in place is as fair and efficient as it should be, but I do think it’s clear that a voluntary/cooperative approach is not sufficient if we seek to maximise the overall public and private net benefits.

We can also observe the results of a recent policy experiment in Queensland, in which a state government led by Premier Campbell Newman made it easier for farmers to clear native vegetation if they wished to. The result was a surge in clearing which is so large that it is likely to wipe out all of the gains in carbon abatement from the Australian Government’s Direct Action program. Apparently, the positive attitude towards native vegetation that we identified amongst farmers in central Victoria does not apply uniformly across the country.

To be fair to the IPA, they aren’t the only ones to make less-than-completely-balanced use of our results. A Tweet from @ARC_CEED (which funded our research) said “Study @MaksymPolyakov @dpannell66 finds trees increase value of rural properties up to 25%”. That’s perfectly true, although the 25% result was an extreme case, and only relevant to very small properties.

Another of our conclusions that hasn’t been picked up in any of the commentary is that increasing the area of woody native vegetation on a property can actually decrease the property value if the area is too large (see the graph in PD#287). It’s interesting that both sides are more enthusiastic about the conclusion that trees can increase property values.

Further reading

Polyakov, M., Pannell, D.J., Pandit, R., Tapsuwan, S. and Park, G. (2015). Capitalized amenity value of native vegetation in a multifunctional rural landscape, American Journal of Agricultural Economics 97(1):299–314.  Journal web page  ♦ Ideas page

288 – Bowie albums ranked

Since David Bowie’s death a couple of weeks ago, I’ve playing his albums pretty incessantly. Playing them all within a short time made me think about which ones I prefer. I’m sharing, in case it’s helpful to others thinking of expanding their Bowie collections.

David Bowie is in my second rank of favourite musicians: not someone whose music I’m completely obsessed with, but definitely one of the greats. He fits into mainstream rock, but like the most original and creative rock artists (The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Radiohead) he was renowned for making radical changes in his music from time to time. In fact, Bowie’s changes were more radical and more frequent than any other major artist.

My decade-by-decade summary would be:

  • The 1960s: An awkward debut, one brilliant single, and a very good second album.
  • The 1970s: Mostly stunningly good, progressing through five utterly distinct phases.
  • The 1980s: Starts with one very good album. After that, several dreadful albums that I can’t bear to listen to.
  • The 1990s, 2000s and 2010s: Everything from 1995 on was very good to excellent.

I have a strong preference for his more adventurous work, and a very strong dislike of his most commercial work (from the mid 1980s).

To be more specific, here is my ranking of all his albums, from best to worst, with some comments about each.

1. Low (1977). The second of three albums in a row that are just amazing. Low is the most radically unusual album by any mainstream rock artist that was actually meant to be listened to. It’s strange, fragmentary, and quite unique in its sound, but it’s absolutely compelling. Brian Eno helped make it that way.
2. "Heroes" (1977). This follow-up to Low has a darker feel, and the songs are more like traditional songs. Brian Eno is back, and Robert Fripp on guitar really stars, especially on the magnificent title song.
3. Station to Station (1976). A bit of the white funk/soul of the previous album Young Americans continues, but it’s much more sinister and challenging, especially the title track. Wonderful, memorable songs.
4. Hunky Dory (1971). Here is another group of three consecutive brilliant albums, this time from the start of the 1970s. They each sound completely different. Hunky Dory is the album to play to someone who likes relatively traditional songs and needs to be convinced about Bowie. Many highlights but "Life on Mars" is incandescent. (Rick Wakeman, no less, says that it was “the best song I had ever had the privilege to work on.”)
5. The Man Who Sold the World (1970). Utterly different from the albums before and after it, this one is sort of heavy metal/prog. Dark, apocalyptic and sinister, and mostly pretty heavy, but exciting throughout.
6. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972). Most serious fans consider this his best album. I’ve got it at number 6. It’s still brilliant, but not as brilliant as the others above it. It’s off-centre pop-rock with great songs.
7. Black Star (2016). It’s hard to properly assess the worth of an album that’s only been released for a few weeks, especially a Bowie album, but at the moment at least this one seems outstanding. The title track is creepily uncomfortable in a way that only Bowie at his best can do. The album sounds like an artist thriving, rather than one on the brink of dying.
8. Diamond Dogs (1974). Excellent production, excellent songs, a great unified feel for the album. This was the last of his run of four early-70s glam rock albums before he started heading off in radically different directions (again).
9. Lodger (1979). This was the third of the Berlin trilogy (after Low and Heroes). It has some excellent tracks, but not quite the sustained brilliance of the other two. A highlight is the guitar playing of Adrian Belew. Bowie has worked with some incredible guitarists, but in my view Belew is the best. He also plays on the live album Stage.
10. The Next Day (2013). Given Bowie’s ill-health and a 10-year gap, fans were not expecting to see another album, let alone one this good. Surprisingly, my top 10 consists of eight albums from the 1970s and two from the 2010s.
11. Heathen (2002). One of five very good Bowie albums released between 1995 and 2003. This is my favourite of the five. It’s interesting and consistently good.
12. Earthling (1997). Almost as good as Heathen, though it’s very different. He’s being creative with “Drums ‘n’ Bass”, an English genre of electronic music.
13. Space Oddity (1969). The title track is such a standout that it boosts my ranking of this album, but the rest of the album is good too, in a folky sort of way.
14. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980). Like Space Oddity, this contains an outstanding track ("Ashes to Ashes" this time) and a set of other very good tracks. This was the last really good album he made for 15 years.
15. Outside (1995). This was the next very good album he made after Scary Monsters (there were seven others in between). He reunited with Brian Eno, who was such an important part of Low and Heroes, for another album that is quite strange. It’s not as artistically successful as those earlier gems, but it is definitely worth having.
16. Young Americans (1975). One of his most radical departures: from the glam rock of Diamond Dogs to the white funk and soul of this one. Contains two of Bowie’s very best songs, "Young Americans" and "Fame", but the rest of the album is not as strong.
17. Reality (2003). His last album before health problems and other activities kept him away from recording for a decade. It would have been a very good final album, though his actual final album is substantially better.
18. Hours (1999). My least favourite of the albums he released after his mid-1990s return to form (the energy level feels a bit low for Bowie), but it’s still pretty good.
19. Tin Machine II (1991). Tin Machine was Bowie’s attempt to break away from the hyper-commercial dross of his mid-1980s albums. It partly worked. It sounds like an American, heavy-guitar-based rock band with Bowie as singer – because that’s what it was. I quite like both Tin Machine albums, but something was lacking. Originality, probably.
20. Tin Machine (1989). See Tin Machine II. This was the first of the two Tin Machine albums. Also quite good.
21. Aladdin Sane (1973). Many Bowie fans would gasp at me putting this below Tin Machine, but it has never really connected with me. I think it’s by far the weakest of his 1970s original albums. "Jean Genie" is great, but the rest is just good.
22. Black Tie, White Noise (1993). The first hint that a return to something like his best form might be possible, after a decade of mediocrity. It’s still too commercial sounding in an American way, but there are some interesting and enjoyable parts.
23. Toy (2001). This album was made for commercial release but it never came out (I guess it will at some stage). It was leaked online in 2011. It includes a number of re-makes of old Bowie songs from the 1960s. The production is good but it lacks great songs.
24. Buddha of Suburbia (1993). Some soundtrack music, with words added to some pieces. Bowie himself rated this album really highly. To me it's just not bad. His instrumentals on the Berlin albums were much more compelling.
25. Pin Ups (1973). Disposable. Mostly not-very-good cover versions of some of Bowie’s favourite songs from the 1960s. Includes one great track: "Sorrow".
26. David Bowie (1967). His debut was completely different from everything that followed. It now sounds very dated. There are a few nice songs but too many novelty songs that make me cringe.
27. Let’s Dance (1983). Bowie’s most commercially successful album by miles. It’s slick, but creatively dead. The death was even more obvious on his next two albums (which are the final two in this list) but it was already there on this one. Even his hair was awful in this period.
28. Tonight (1984). It’s hard to know which of these two mid 80s albums to put last. They are both execrable. Over-produced, boring, and lacking any good original songs.
29. Never Let Me Down (1987). See Tonight.