Friday, October 20, 2017

Paris: the Dragon King. More Presentations of "The Seneca Effect" Book

Camille Olinet (left) and Fanny Verrax (right) with whom I was engaged in a discussion on mining as part of the presentation of my book "The Seneca Effect" in Paris. Camille is studying agronomy, Fanny has a degree in philosophy and studies mineral depletion and its consequences with a special interest on rare earths. They are a good example of the lively intellectual climate of Paris. 

In 1998, Jean Laherrere (yes, the great expert on peak oil!) and his colleague, the French physicist Didier Sornette were studying the distribution of various natural phenomena. They found that cities followed a nice "Power law" distribution in the relation of size and rank with a single exception: Paris: a city so much larger than the others in France that it could as well be on another planet.
In that paper, Laherrere and Sornette used the term "king" for an element of the distribution that's completely outside the trend. Later on, Sornette used the term "Dragon King" for this kind of things, correctly surmising that these dragons are better examples of sudden and unexpected crisis than the concept of "Black Swan" created by Nassim Taleb. (you will find details on these curious entities in my book, "The Seneca Effect")

Now, I don't know how I could measure the level of "intellectual liveliness" of Paris, but I surmise that if it could be done, the results would be similar to those that Laherrere and Sornette found for the size of French cities. Paris truly stands out of the crowd in many senses, also as a throbbing center of intellectual activity.

So, my book tour in Paris was a real smorgasbord of discussions and debates. Not everything was on stellar levels, of course, but it was a pleasure to note that in Paris (and in general, in France) you can still seriously discuss of things, such as "peak oil" and "mineral depletion," which seem to have become politically incorrect - branded as "catastrophism" - in the English-speaking world. And there are still books published in French and written by French scientists on these subjects that are supposed to be bought and read by people, not just thought as ornaments of a scientist's career.

Why is Paris so lively? Maybe the French made a wise choice in maintaining their language alive as a medium for scientific communication. Or maybe it is just the French tradition of respecting their "savants" (things are a little different in the US, as we all know). Or, simply, because France has not yet taken the downslope of the Seneca cliff as other European countries have (Italy is a sad example of this).

In any case, vive la France!

h/t: Jacques.Chartier-Kastler, Yves Cochet, Didier Cumenal, Jean Pierre Diederen, Arthur Keller, Vincent Mignerot, Daniel Moulin, Camille Olinet, Jacques Treiner, Fanny Verrax, and many, many others


  1. Ugo
    Could Paris owe something to the dirigiste past? If the current intellectual climate persists, that would be encouraging. Certainly doing science in a language other than English could have its advantages I guess.

    Incidentally, I have been told that Jean Lahererre is scpetical of climate change arising from recent carbon emissions. It looks as though the work that you cite above when applied to the Vostok ice cores might be the basis for his minority view? Can you comment?


    1. Yes, Jean is not convinced of the standard interpretation of climate change. I guess that being a geologist has something to do with this attitude, Jean is not alone. In the paper that I cite, there is a paragraph on the analysis of the Vostok ice cores, but I must confess that I can't understand what the authors mean with that.

  2. To what extent, if any do you think that the relative positions on the Senica cliff of Italy and France is to do with France's development of nuclear power as a primary power source?

  3. It is a good question, not easy to answer. In my opinion, however, if nuclear power helped France, it should have helped Italy even more, since Italy buys large amounts of nuclear energy from France and didn't have to spend to build the plants.

    1. Ugo
      I have found these rather splendid quotes from the historian Tony Judt in ‘How the French Think’, by Sudhir Hazareesingh, (Penguin, 2015).

      SH writes:
      Judt argues: “Ever since the statutes of the University of Paris (AD 1215) required of them that its scholars work to found ‘a comprehensive theory of the world,’ the dominant characteristic of French intellectual discourse has been the drive to organise and contain knowledge within a single frame,” leading, in the past, to a search for “all embracing meta-histories.” Judt argues that this habit of thought is transmitted from generation to generation via “a remarkably unbroken culture, that of the Parisian community, unique in the Western experience.”

      It seems to go back a long way! Smile.

      Indeed; ‘vive la France!’

  4. Ugo
    A couple of posts ago I wrote a rather length essay on what behavioral science is telling us about climate change and other problems. One of the authors I mentioned was Lisa Feldman Barrett, the author of How Emotions Are Made. You invited me to write something...but I am not very enthusiastic about writing an article when I am just an amateur reading about it rather than an expert.

    At any rate, here is Lisa with an article on the failure of simulation and failure to deal with climate change. Briefly, we simulate something and then check to see how our simulation feels. If we can't simulate, we don't form the emotions required to bring about change.

    I concluded my comments with the statement that it turns out to be hard to change in the absence of environmental change. Lisa recommends requiring an environmental change on the part of our leaders.

    Don Stewart

  5. Ugo
    Here is another tweet from Barrett, republishing an article written in response to her book:
    The second flawed assumption is we control emotions by rational thought. Emotions are often seen as an inner beast that needs taming by cognitive effort. This idea, however, is rooted in a bogus view of brain evolution. Books and articles on emotional intelligence claim that your brain has an inner core that you inherited from reptiles, wrapped in a wild, emotional layer that you inherited from mammals, all enrobed in—and controlled by—a logical layer that is uniquely human. This three-layer view, called the triune brain, has been popular since the 1950s but has no basis in reality. Brains did not evolve in layers. Brains are like companies—they reorganize as they grow in size. The difference between your brain and, say, a chimp or monkey brain has nothing to do with layering and everything to do with microscopic wiring. Decades of neuroscience research now show that no part of your brain is exclusively dedicated to thoughts or emotions. Both are produced by your entire brain as billions of neurons work together.

    Even though the triune brain is a complete fiction, it’s had an outstanding public relations campaign. Today, decades after the triune brain was dismissed by experts in brain evolution, people still use phrases like “lizard brain,” and believe that emotions are tiny brain circuits that fire uncontrollably when faced with the right trigger, and that, at some deep, biological level, cognition and emotion are locked in battle. After all, that’s how many of us in Western cultures experience our emotional life, as if our emotional side wants to do impulsive things but our cognitive side tamps down the urges. These compelling experiences—of being emotionally out of control and rationally in control—do not reveal their underlying mechanisms in the brain. To improve our understanding of emotional intelligence, we must discard the idea of the brain as a battlefield.

    A reasonable, science-backed way to define and practice emotional intelligence comes from a modern, neuroscientific view of brain function called construction: the observation that your brain creates all thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, automatically and on the fly, as needed. This process is completely unconscious. It may seem like you have reflex-like emotional reactions and effortlessly detect emotions in other people, but under the hood, your brain is doing something else entirely.

    My amateur summary: We are unlikely to be able to persuade people to do something about climate change if they can simulate bad things if they make changes, but cannot simulate even worse things if they do nothing. In addition, of course, we have the problem of discounting the future. And the pervasive problem that we learn from our society. I’m not on solutions in this brief note, but solutions must be based in bodily experience, in all likelihood. Or else in delusion, such as ‘some wind and solar will let us feed 15 billion people on this planet the same way Americans eat today’. But if we choose the ‘experience’ pill, then we have to reject delusion and choose ‘even worse than you have thus far experienced in your sheltered life’.

    Don Stewart

  6. It is quite peculiar this vision of France that you have. As a frenchman I have the strong feeling that my country is heading slowly but surely towards a civil war...



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)