Category: Politics

Back to work

By Phil Plait | November 7, 2012 12:07 pm

A few people – including my pal Deric Hughes – put together this non-partisan and nicely done video in honor of democracy:

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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: Deric Hughes

A step in the right direction… but there are many more steps to go

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 11:44 pm

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.

Ever onward!

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

Vote.

By Phil Plait | November 6, 2012 6:00 am

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.

MORE ABOUT: Election 2012

How far back will we set our clocks?

By Phil Plait | November 3, 2012 11:59 am

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.


Related Posts:

- The Neroes of global warming
- A wind is rising
- The US Congress Anti-Science Committee

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Humor, Piece of mind, Politics

The Neroes of global warming

By Phil Plait | November 2, 2012 7:00 am

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.


Related Posts:

- A wind is rising
- Is it hot in here, or is it just global warming?
- When does weather become climate
- New study clinches it: the Earth is warming up

A wind is rising

By Phil Plait | October 30, 2012 9:49 am

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

Flatly wrong global warming denial

By Phil Plait | October 23, 2012 10:24 am

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.


Related Posts:

- The US Congress Anti-Science Committee
- Republican candidates, global warming, evolution, and reality
- Is it hot in here, or is it just global warming?
- Let those global warming dollars flow

The US Congress Anti-Science Committee

By Phil Plait | October 6, 2012 7:00 am

[NB: As always with posts like this, I strongly urge you to read my note about posts covering politics and religion as well as my commenting policy before leaving a comment.]

Not too long ago, I (and pretty much the whole internet) wrote about the ridiculous and honestly offensive statements made by Representative Todd Akin (R-MO). His knowledge – or really, the profound lack thereof – of female anatomy made him the laughing stock of the planet. But I wasn’t laughing. I was, and still am, furious. And not just because of what he said, but also because he is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

That anyone could spew such obvious and awful nonsense about biology and anatomy and yet sit on the US Congress’s science committee is, simply put, an outrage.

I also pointed out he’s not alone. In that article I devoted just one line to Representative Paul Broun (R-GA), saying how he was a creationist and also sits on that same science committee… but I think it’s time we take a second look at Congressman Broun.

Why?

In late September, Rep. Broun made a speech at the Liberty Baptist Church’s Sportsman’s banquet in Hartwell, Georgia. In this speech he said many, many things, including this:

All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I’ve found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.

[The whole talk is online at YouTube.]

Sadly, that kind of antiscientific nonsense is de rigueur for a lot of folks these days, even ones who sit in Congress. But then, to close the deal, he goes on:

And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually, how to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all of public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason as your congressman I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.

Two points: one is that all Congresscritters, upon entering office, have to swear to uphold the Constitution, and the second is that this document is pretty clear about legislating religion. In fact, Supreme Court judge Hugo Black said about this topic, "Government must be neutral among religions and nonreligion: it cannot promote, endorse, or fund religion or religious institutions."

Rep. Broun’s words don’t sound terribly neutral to me.

You may disagree with me about the shaky ground (like Richter 10 shaky) Broun stands on Constitutionally, but there is no doubt – none – that he is 100% completely off the rails with his science. The Big Bang is "straight from the pit of hell"? It’s bad enough that anyone would actually believe something like that, let alone a Congressman, but I will remind you he sits on the House science committee!

And he sits there with Akin. And Brooks. And Hall. And Rohrabacher.

These are the men whom the Republican majority placed on that committee. Men who think global warming is a fantasy. Men who think women have magic vaginas. Men who think the Earth is thousands, not billions, of years old.

I have my issues with Obama right now, which in truth are dwarfed by my issues with Romney. But remember that come November 6 of this year in the US we’ll be voting for members of Congress as well. And the majority party decides who sits on what committee, and those people will in turn decide what to legislate: reality, or fantasy.

The choice, quite literally, is yours. Choose well.

Tip o’ the gavel to TPM via CCounterman.


Related Posts:

- Akin breakin’ science
- Followup: Rep. Ralph Hall’s unbelievable statement on science funding bill
- Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA): on climate change, makes wrong even wronger
- Next up for Congress: repeal the law of gravity

Space Shuffle

By Phil Plait | September 24, 2012 3:32 pm

I’m not sure I want to trust plans for NASA from the same guy who wonders why airplane windows don’t open.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humor, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Space
MORE ABOUT: Mitt Romney

Let those global warming dollars flow

By Phil Plait | September 20, 2012 11:00 am

One of the weirdest (and by that I mean most ridiculous) claims I’ve heard from global warming deniers is the idea that somehow there is a cabal of scientists making up all the information we see about climate change.

First, scientists aren’t very good at that sort of collusion. As Ben Franklin said, "Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead." Scientists as a rule tend to abhor misleading people or out-and-out lying. And those who do tend to be caught by the peer-review process.

Anyway, ignoring the idea that tens of thousands of scientists are playing a Jedi mind trick on the rest of us without a single one of them betraying the secret (and no, Climategate and its sequel don’t count since that was all trumped up smoke and mirrors by the denier crowd), the real reason this claim is ludicrous is because of its supernova-bright irony: a lot of the deniers can be traced to having fossil fuel funding.

Or, as this infographic from Occupy Posters puts it so succinctly:

Mind you, this isn’t supposed to be evidence that global warming deniers are paid frauds. It’s simply using Occam’s Razor, asking which makes more sense. Taken that way, it just shows the idea that scientists are on the wrong side of this is really silly.

Incidentally, guess who’s funding Mitt Romney’s campaign to the tune of tens of millions of dollars? Anyone? Bueller?

With the arctic melting earlier and deeper every year, with temperatures rising, with extreme weather more common, with glaciers retreating, with sea level rising, with droughts ravaging the US, reality is diverging more and more from the claims of the deniers.


Related Posts:

- Case closed: “Climategate” was manufactured
- Climategate 2: More ado about nothing. Again.
- A case study of the tactics of climate change denial, in which I am the target

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