This is my last post for the Bad Astronomy Blog on Discover Magazine. As of today – Monday, November 12, 2012 – the blog has a new home at Slate magazine.
It has been my pleasure and honor to be a Discover blogger for more than four years. Still, I remember my science teacher in third grade quoting Heraclitus to us: "Nothing is permanent except change". That’s true today, of course, and just as obviously in the Age of the Internet the velocity of that change is accelerating.
But in this case I hope the change isn’t too shocking for you, dear BABloggees. All you have to do is switch a URL in your bookmarks or update your RSS feed (to do that, just copy that link address into your feed reader). I’ll still be writing the same sort of material, I’ll still make dumb puns, and I’ll still be Tweeting, Facebooking, and GooglePlussing like mad.
To be clear: all the archives of my blog will be copied to Slate magazine, but will still have a home here at Discover. I’d be obliged if you updated links to the new archive, but old links shouldn’t break.
And so, I bid a fond adieu to Discover. What I said in my post announcing the move still holds true: I encourage everyone to read the fantastic collection of science blogs that live here, among the best such blogs in the world; fantastic company in which to be. And I hope you follow me to Slate.
It’s a big Universe out there, roomy enough for all of us. And there’s still a vast amount left to explore and understand.
[Today is Carl Sagan's birthday, celebrated by lovers of science and rationality around the planet. I wrote the following post last year, but I think it's still appropriate (and I updated his age). Happy birthday, Carl. It's a darker cosmos without you, but we still walk with the candle you lit for us.]
If Carl Sagan were still alive, he’d be 78 years old today. Perhaps he wouldn’t have been overly concerned with arbitrary time measurements, especially when based on the fickle way we define a "year", but it’s human nature to look back at such integrally-divisible dates… and Carl was very much a student of human nature.
I’ve written about him so much in the past there’s not much I can add right now, so I thought I would simply embed a video for you to watch… but which one? Where James Randi eloquently and emotionally talks about his friendship with Carl? Or the wonderful first installment of Symphony of Science using my favorite quote by Carl? Or this amazing speech about how life seeks life?
But in the end, the choice is obvious. Carl Sagan’s essay, "Pale Blue Dot", will, I think, stand the test of time, and will deservedly be considered one of the greatest passages ever written in the English language.
Happy birthday to Doctor Carl Sagan, Professor of Astronomy, scientist, skeptic, muse, and – though he may not have thought of himself this way — poet.
I’ll leave you with this, something I wrote abut Carl a while back, when asked about what his greatest legacy is:
Sagan’s insight, his gift to us, is the knowledge that we all have the ability to examine the Universe with all the power of human curiosity, and we need not retreat from the answers we find.
If you like it, give it a thumbs-up on YouTube and Like it on FB.
And they’re right. As I wrote last night, there is much work to be done. I don’t think we can or even should put our differences aside – we need them to keep a check on runaway beliefs. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to move things forward.
Well, it was quite a night.
I’m trying to parse it all, and there’s a whole lot to parse. The big news, duh, is that President Obama won, and yes, I’m happy about that. Despite a lot of smoke and mirrors from pundits and campaign managers during this unending election cycle, the President has done a lot of good for this country, and has been a net positive in many ways. I think a lot more can improve in the next four years, and I’ll be curious to see just how he rolls up his sleeves and gets to it.
Having said that, I’m not all rainbows and unicorns with him, which I’ll get to in a sec.
I’m thrilled Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock lost. I have to think that their, ah, extremely poorly thought-out comments about rape had something to do with that. I saw a lot of tweets along the lines of "Hey Republicans, if you want to win next time you’d better not talk about rape!", which I think is wrongheaded. I think politicians should be talking about it, but they should be getting it right. It’s one thing to score a political zinger, but another to actually change the hearts and minds of those same politicians. I want real change, not change in rhetoric.
I’ll note that it looks like in January there will be 18 women Senators, an all-time high. That’s a bit short of the 50 or 52 needed to reflect the true composition of our population, but it’s better than it ever has been. This seems to me to be pretty good evidence that women listen, and they vote. As do men who are concerned over women’s issues. That’s a fine thing, and a really good sign.
Tammy Baldwin is one of those women. She’s the first openly gay Senator in our nation’s history. And four states – Maine, Washington, Minnesota, and Maryland – approved marriage equality acts. I’m OK with that. I’m more than OK with that. For why, see here and here and here and here and here.
But the news isn’t all good. I poked around a bit, and saw that a lot of the antiscience Congresscritters were re-elected. Climate change deniers Ralph Hall (head of the House Science Committee) and John Sensenbrenner, and many others will still retain their seats (but not Akin, yay!). [UPDATE: Turns out Hall is term-limited as chairman and will give up the gavel. That link also discusses the changes in the Committee]. Relatively moderate Republican Roscoe Bartlett lost, and he acknowledged the reality of climate change. He’ll have to be replaced by the Republican majority, and sadly, there’s a long list of global warming deniers to choose from. Don’t forget Paul Broun ran unopposed, and he’s a full-blooded antiscience Big-Bang-denying antievolution creationist.
On a better note, I’ll add that Bill Foster, a moderate Illinois
Republican Democrat, won a seat. He’s a high-energy physicist! Man oh man, I’d love to see him get on the Science Committee. Boulder’s own Jared Polis retained his seat in Congress, too, and he’s pro-science as well.
Now, having said all that…
I am still unhappy about President Obama gutting NASA’s space exploration funding, and I am unhappy he still hasn’t talked much about climate change… and those are just science topics. And it’s important to note that it’s still a Republican house, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic White House, just as it’s been for two years now. These same two years where almost no legislation has been passed, and a whole lot of science has been ridiculed or simply ignored.
The takeaway here? Overall, I’m pleased. Some things got better, and not much got worse. A lot is still the same, so we have to be ready for more of what we’ve already been through. And while this is a time of celebration for many of us, we must acknowledge that the forces against reality and science are still out there and still have a lot of power. We must not flag, not give up, and never tire.
Listen. I want you to vote.
I won’t make that pandering "It doesn’t matter who you vote for" speech, because, geez, c’mon. It does matter.
But not voting at all is not an option. You need to vote.
I know a lot of folks are undecided, and getting mocked in the media for it. But from what I see, a lot of people have honest problems with both candidates.
I can relate. I do too. But in my opinion, voting is still critical, for a few reasons. But there’s one big one: if you don’t vote, how does that help?
Seriously, staying home and not voting doesn’t help at all, and in fact hurts. Why? Because, for one thing, I bet you don’t hate everything about both candidates. A lot of people frame it as the lesser of two evils, but I think it’s more positive to consider it as the better of the two choices.
Looking over the choices, there must be one who edges out the other, for whatever issues matter to you. That matters. It truly does.
And not voting hurts you, directly. If you don’t vote, you have no say in what the government can do for or with or to you. You’re letting other people make that decision for you. And I think you probably know better what you want than other people do.
Don’t vote, and you are freely allowing others to declare how much tax you should pay, where that money goes, whether or not you have access to health care, how women are treated (whether through pay, health benefits, or a myriad of other ways), and even whether science or nonsense gets taught in schools.
Another argument I hear is that one vote doesn’t count. Lets be honest: in many places, that’s probably true. But not everywhere, and it can be hard to tell just where. Remember, in 2000, the entire national election boiled down to a few hundred votes in Florida. A few hundred.
I look at the swing states, places that can swing the election and where it’s hard to tell who’s ahead, and I wonder. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Florida… all these states have big universities, with student populations in the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. A single freshman class at one of those schools could swing this entire election.
Still think your vote doesn’t count?
I know a lot of younger folks read my blog. You have way more riding on this election than I do. Maybe you’re looking for a job, or have one already. How much tax do you think is fair to pay? What rights will you have with your employer? What kind of health insurance will you get? It’s not sexy to think about health insurance, but it’s going to suck mightily when you break your leg or you need to get your wisdom teeth out, and you find out it’s going to be a cash only out-of-pocket transaction.
Also, you’ll have to live in the future longer than I will. What’s that future going to be like? One where global warming slams us every summer with stronger hurricanes because the government ignored the scientists? One where your kids are taught the Earth is 6000 years old? One where you can’t get contraception?
That’s what your vote means.
On these issues – and a whole passel more – the two major candidates are worlds apart. These issues impact you, now, today. Health care, taxes, women’s rights, corporate law, international policy, gay marriage, climate change… do even a modicum of research and you’ll see the differences shining like a beacon. And we may have a Supreme Court justice retire in the next four years; think about how the two candidates differ on whom they would nominate for that.
And if you like a third party candidate, then great! Go vote for him or her! But don’t complain that it’s a waste of time because they can’t win. It’s a certainty they can’t if you don’t vote for them, and if enough people vote for them they may start to get noticed.
For me, a lot of the decisions I make when I vote boil down to how the candidate faces science, faces reality – which are in many ways the same thing. Maybe you agree. And that brings up a final major point: this election is not just to decide who will be President. We’re voting for Congress as well, and these are the people who make the laws. Congress has the lowest public approval rating they’ve had in decades, and for good reason. But you know what can be done? You can throw out the ones who won’t face reality!
Look up who’s who in your state and district and see what your Congresscritters think. I’ll guarantee there are huge differences between candidates for Congress. And the majority party picks who runs the committees – for example, the House Science Committee, where several of the sitting members are as blatantly antiscience as anyone I’ve ever seen.
Do you love science as much as I do? You can vote them out!
I’ll also note that in local elections there will be people running for school board. Think that’s not important? Think again.
This election is about far more than electing a President. It could mean four more years of science obstructionism, four years we cannot afford to lose.
I’m not a single issue voter, and I hope you aren’t either. But then, reality isn’t a single issue. Antiscience affects global warming legislation, textbooks and class curricula, women’s rights, technology development, medical research, energy production, religious incursions on the First Amendment, and much more. Our very economy is largely based on science and engineering. It’s not too much to ask for people in power to understand that.
In fact, it’s a rock bottom requirement.
So speaking of bottoms, get off yours. The only way you can waste your vote is by not casting one.
This picture is going around Facebook. I tried to find the original, but it’s hopeless, so I’ll just put this here.
Remember, in the US we’re not just voting on the President, we’re voting on lots of Congresscritters, too. In that case, we may be setting the clocks back more like two thousand years.
Nero was an emperor of Rome, and not looked upon kindly by history. A great fire swept through Rome, rumored to have been started by Nero himself to clear more land for his own estate. Nero supposedly did little to stop it, which is why we have the phrase "Nero fiddled while Rome burned".
The analogy to climate change is glaringly obvious. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil has dumped vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the air – far more than the total from all volcanoes combined, for example. This greenhouse gas essentially traps heat*, preventing natural physical processes from letting the Earth maintain its temperature. The end result: the Earth is heating up.
The vast, overwhelming majority of real climate scientists agree with this assessment. Oddly, the fossil fuel industry doesn’t. They sponsor a lot of very loud and very wrong "think tanks" who deny the very existence of the problem the industry itself created. So the Earth heats up, and they fiddle with the truth.
As I wrote recently, global warming is in the news because it’s very likely that the hurricane Sandy was influenced by our changing climate. I’m not the only one to think so. Climate scientist Randy Horton says, for example, that melting sea ice and a declining jet stream may have been in part responsible for steering Sandy into the east coast, instead of over the open ocean as late-season hurricanes usually do.
The deniers, of course, are spinning this faster than the hurricane itself.
Those of us on the side of reality in this issue want it to be about science, but we must see that it’s about politics. When a large number of sitting members of the US House of Representatives science committee are avid and avowed global warming deniers, this is about politics. When we see the fossil fuel industry funding those very people, it’s about politics.
Perhaps that stranglehold of political denial is loosening up a tiny bit. Business Week, not usually known for leftist leanings, just published a story called "It’s Global Warming, Stupid" and put it on their front page. The two presidential candidates have hardly talked about it, and not at all in the debates, despite this being the biggest medium-term crisis the world is facing. President Obama did finally speak out, on MTV of all places (which is actually pretty good; hopefully a younger audience will listen), but could’ve put in a lot more details of what he actually plans to do.
Of course, Governor Romney is wearing his past statements like an albatross around his neck. He has mocked global warming, and said many times he would dismantle FEMA. He flip-flopped on that just this week, kindof, saying FEMA does an important job. However, given that he said it was "immoral" – his word – to fund FEMA, I have a difficult time believing he’s being entirely honest now.
Because the issue was ignored in the debates, Science Debate put on a mock 4th Presidential debate dealing with global warming, with candidate stand-ins talking about the issue. If only that had been real. If only.
So we still have a long way to go. Things in the Senate aren’t much better, with people like James Inhofe (R-OK) still sticking by his claim that the very idea of global warming is a hoax. Happily, some people are willing to hang that one around his neck, too. But it’s not enough. Not nearly.
And there’s more bad news. One of the biggest weapons we have against hurricanes like Sandy is our fleet of weather satellites, tracking the storms and allowing scientists to predict the path and ferocity of storms, sometimes days in advance. Sandy’s track was predicted amazingly well due to this. But our very ability to do this is in jeopardy: the New York Times is reporting that we may be facing a weather satellite crisis, with an aging fleet of satellites breaking down and no replacements ready for launch for quite some time. There may be a years-long gap in our coverage of storms from space because of this.
And during all of this, the deniers fiddle. They argue and spin about statistics, misleadingly plotting data. They talk about sunspots, they talk about cycles, they talk about other planets, and all the while they are desperately trying to distract you from the real issue. The Earth is warming up, the change is real, it’s dangerous, it’s already affecting us noticeably, and we’re not doing anything to stop it.
The public is catching on to this. Recent polls show that Americans are more accepting that global warming is real. That’s good news, and an excellent start.
But it must be translated into action. We have an election coming up in a few days. Many of these climate change deniers are up for re-election, while others are seeking office. If you are an American, I urge you to do your research and vote accordingly. Literally, our future is in our hands.
<em<Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
* Technically, CO2 is transparent to visible light, but opaque to far infrared. Sunlight gets through, warms up the ground, which then radiates that heat as infrared. The CO2 won’t let that radiate away into space, so the heat stays on Earth, warming the ground (and oceans!) further. But saying "it traps heat" is close enough.
What is now the post-tropical cyclone Sandy, as seen by the NASA/NOAA weather satellite GOES-13 at 06:02 Eastern US time, on October 30, 2012:
[Click for a much larger version, or get the 3600 x 3000 pixel image.]
Like anyone not on the east coast, I have been watching this event unfold from the sidelines. Twitter has been an amazing source of information (and misinformation, in general quickly debunked). I saw links to a video of transformer exploding on 14th street, ubiquitous flooding, cars floating in water, and so much more. There were so many pictures, real and fake, that Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic wrote a great article on how to distinguish between them.
The pictures have been powerful, but the stories have been amazing. I’ve seen messages from friends who are safe offering – publicly – their apartments and houses for strangers who need a place to stay. People rescuing others from the flooding. Calls for watching out for neighbors, relatives, even pets, with responses. The most moving, perhaps, is of nurses at the NYC hospital carrying infants down nine flights of stairs in the dark after a generator went out.
That one will haunt me for a long, long time.
A question I’ve seen a lot is: what was the role of global warming in all this? Christopher Mims wrote a short, measured analysis of this that matches my thinking almost exactly. Basically, it’s hard to know the precise role of global warming in the formation, movement, power, and damage caused by Sandy, but what we do know is that the Atlantic had warmer temperatures for longer than usual – conditions consistent with global warming – and that is a source of both energy and water for the hurricane. There is some thought that the huge arctic sea ice melt this year may have contributed to the abrupt westward turn of the hurricane into the coast. Correlation isn’t necessarily causation; the details are difficult to calculate and we may never know.
But we do know that something looking very much like this has been predicted by climate scientists. This may be an unusual event – after all, the nor’easter timing was important, and the spring tides from the full Moon contributed as well – but it’s hard to say just how unusual it will be in the future. Warmer waters lead to an extended hurricane season which can stretch into the time when nor’easters are more likely to occur. These circumstances loaded the dice. And as Mims so aptly phrased it, the reality of global warming means "climate change, by definition, is present in every single weather event on the planet."
There has been some political opportunism with this storm as well. I am not a fan of such parasitism; latching on to an opportunity under the thinnest of pretense to trump a partisan view. However, let me be clear: we just had the world’s biggest metaphor come ashore in the United States. Years of outright climate change denial and faux skepticism will hopefully be shaken by this event. Sea ice melting happens far away; droughts, fires, shifting weather is unpredictable and difficult to grasp; statistical graphs are easily manipulated by special-interest groups and generally difficult to interpret anyway. But a hurricane a thousand miles across doing tens of billions of dollars of damage and causing untold chaos is more than a wake up call.
It should be a shot of adrenaline into the heart.
My own heart goes out to everyone who has had to deal with this storm, and I am uplifted by the stories of heroism, self-sacrifice, and selflessness. I am a skeptic and a realist, but there is also a streak of optimism in me. When faced with extraordinary challenge, I will always hope that humans will rise to match it.
Image credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project
Sometimes climate change deniers make it all too easy.
The UK paper Daily Mail has a long history of courting climate change denial, and apparently it has no wish to change. It recently posted an atrocious article called "Global warming stopped 16 years ago, reveals Met Office report quietly released… and here is the chart to prove it". The article was written by David Rose, who wrote a pretty inaccurate article earlier this year on a similar topic.
In fact, this new article was so blatantly wrong that the MET office – the national weather service for the UK – wrote a rebuttal to it detailing the flaws. To start with, they point out they did recently update their global temperature databases, but that’s a very different thing than "quietly releasing a report", as Rose claims. Cue the conspiracy music!
It gets worse from there. They take on his points one at a time and take them down. I highly recommend reading them. And if you haven’t gotten your fill of it, or you’re still not convinced, you can check out The Carbon Brief’s article that gives more details on Rose’s denial.
Or you can read the takedown by Skeptical Science.
Or by Open Mind. In fact, let’s take a closer look at that.
Tamino, the author of Open Mind, shows just how Rose picks and chooses his data to make it look like global warming stopped years ago. In the picture here, the top graph shows what Rose says the temperature looks like: flat across the past 15 years or so. But that’s terribly misleading: the starting point he chose falsely makes the graph look flat. The bottom one shows the true situation as Tamino describes it. You have to go farther into the past to find a reasonable starting point, and when you do, you see what looked flat is actually a rising temperature over time.
To do what Rose did in that upper graph is to strain reality (and credulity) past the breaking point. It’s almost as if Rose specifically chose the data that he liked and rejected the rest. That’s a big no-no in the reality-based world. Tamino thoroughly vaporizes Rose’s article, showing that it’s wrong in its most basic assumptions, its methodology, and its conclusions.
But other than that…
This article is just another in a long line of climate change denials that fiddles with the data to make it look like the Earth isn’t warming up. But it adds up. This kind of nonsense is damaging to real efforts to do something real about a real problem. And venues like the Daily Mail are all too happy to fan the fire while the world burns.
Splash, a style magazine in Chicago, is reporting that they’ve hired Jenny McCarthy to be their new daily blogger.
Yes, you read that right. But it gets better. And by better, I mean worse.
Besides a daily blog, she’s being given a weekly advice column called "Ask Jenny", where, among other things, she will "tackle parenting".
Tackle, indeed. Body slam is more like it.
As someone who strongly advocates parents to get their kids vaccinated – y’know, to keep them from contracting potentially debilitating or deadly diseases, because I’m funny that way – I am not exactly a fan of Ms. McCarthy. I’ve written about her many, many times, because of her tenuous grasp of medical reality. She has for example repeatedly and fallaciously linked vaccines to autism, and has spouted inflated propaganda about toxic ingredients in them.
If you want the truth about vaccinations, and why they are critical for our public health, then go to the Immunize for Good website. Or talk to your board-certified doctor (good advice under any circumstances). But don’t talk to Jenny McCarthy. When it comes to medical advice she’s as wrong as wrong can be, and people who listen to antivax propaganda are putting lives at risk.
As you can imagine, there are some questions for her "Ask Jenny" column it would be interesting to see her answer. Why, despite the vast and overwhelming evidence against it, do you think vaccines cause autism? Do you know the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury? How many babies die of pertussis every year? How big a number is acceptable to you?
Let me leave you with this. Guess what the slogan is for Splash magazine. Go ahead, guess.
"Chicago’s Dose of Style, Society, and Celebrity." Emphasis mine. But still.
You can’t make this stuff up. But antivaxxers make up lots of stuff about vaccines. Too bad people pay attention to them.