Everyone who has been paying attention knows that there is a strong anti-science movement in this country — driven partly by populist anti-intellectualism, but increasingly by corporate interests that just don’t like what science has to say. It’s an old problem — tobacco companies succeeded for years in sowing doubt about the health effects of smoking — but it’s become significantly worse in recent years.
Nina Fedoroff is the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is holding its annual meeting right now. She is not holding back about the problem, but tackling it directly. From a weekend article in the Guardian (h/t Dan Gillmor):
“We are sliding back into a dark era,” she said. “And there seems little we can do about it. I am profoundly depressed at just how difficult it has become merely to get a realistic conversation started on issues such as climate change or genetically modified organisms.”
Tim F. at Balloon Juice points to this flowchart at Climate Progress that illustrates how the money and message gets sent around to sow doubt about scientific findings. (Okay, it’s not really a flow chart, but you get the point.) I was also struck by a link to an older article by Ian Sample, which put the problem in its starkest terms: the American Enterprise Institute was offering $10,000 to scientists and economists who were willing to write op-eds or essays critiquing the IPCC climate report — before it was published. Money goes a long way.
Relatedly, here’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg trying to push the Supreme Court away from its ruling in Citizens United, the notorious case that led to the creation of SuperPACs by deciding that corporations were persons, and not letting them advertise anonymously would be a grievous violation of their free-speech rights. We’ll see how well she does. Scientists, meanwhile, need to keep speaking out about the integrity of our field. When researchers are attacked and their jobs threatened by politicians who disagree with their results, it’s time to stand up for what science really means.
There are three types of scientific explanations: those involving cats, those involving dogs, and those that aren’t very interesting. Via Andrew Revkin, here’s a well-done animation that uses a dog to explain the difference between a long-term trend and a short-term variation.
Show this to your local climate denialist when they get confused about the distinction between “climate” and “weather.” Not that it will change their minds, but the dog is cute.
Less than ten miles from my house in Santa Fe, a wildfire is raging. The Pacheco Canyon fire has burned 10,000 acres, and is currently 15% contained. Due to wind direction and topography it is being funneled into the Santa Fe forest and away from town. Despite some spectacular plumes of smoke, the fire has had surprisingly little impact on Santa Fe. The last week has been reminiscent of a Bruegel painting. Everyone going about their business, oblivious to the conflagration just outside of town.
The complacency was broken Sunday afternoon when another wildfire erupted just west of Los Alamos. Within 24 hours the Las Conchas fire had grown to 50,000 acres, and was lapping at the boundary of Los Alamos National Lab (where I work). The fire momentarily crossed into lab property, and burned roughly an acre before being extinguished. It is to be noted that the lab is vast, covering an area of 36 square miles (93 square km). The fire was in one of the more remote parts of lab property, and burned less than 100th of one percent of the lab, with no buildings affected. The lab has been closed since Monday, and nobody knows when it’ll reopen. The town of Los Alamos was abruptly evacuated yesterday afternoon. Residents scrambled to put everything of value into their cars, and then drove off the hill with a huge plume of smoke at their backs. A decade ago a similar fire burned over 200 homes in Los Alamos, and incinerated much of the surrounding forest. Back then over 400 families returned to find their homes, and everything in them, reduced to ash. The memories of the previous fire weigh heavy.
As if the evacuation of almost 20,000 people weren’t enough to focus the mind, an additional concern is that the fire might sweep through the laboratory. Los Alamos has radioactive material on site, and although there are only modest quantities of truly dangerous material, it would nonetheless be disastrous to have this material compromised.
With Fukushima still unfolding there is a temptation to dwell on the impossibility of defending against mother nature’s wrath, and the attendant dangers of generating nuclear material. Although there is an interesting discussion to be had on this topic, the question of the moment is the status of the wildfire near Los Alamos. As usual, it is incomprehensibly difficult to get up-to-date information. Presumably the fire crews have a clear idea of the location of the fire line, and where the fire is headed, but none of this data appears to be publicly available. The best resources I’ve found are inciweb (Pacheco and Las Conchas), NMFire, and SWCC.
The lab has had years to prepare for this eventuality, and thus far there does not appear to be any significant source of concern. I am told that the Los Alamos lab perimeter is secure, that the fire is not presently threatening Los Alamos townsite, and that the immediate threat has been mitigated. But until the summer “monsoon” rains start in earnest (we had our first few drops of the summer yesterday afternoon), the progress of the fire is dictated just as much by the weather and wind as it is by human intervention. At present the Los Alamos fire is 0% contained.
For the moment an eerie calm has settled. It is a beautiful day here. The winds have subsided. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable 85F (29C). Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and the lab all seem to be out of danger for the time being. Besides the thousands of Los Alamos refugees, and the blaring headlines atop the local newspapers (“Los Alamos Under Siege“), day-to-day life continues as if nothing is amiss.
Among the many depressing aspects of our current political discourse is the proudly anti-science stance adopted by one of our major political parties. When it comes to climate change, in particular, Republicans are increasingly united against the scientific consensus. What’s interesting is that this is not simply an example of a conservative/liberal split; elsewhere in the world, conservatives are not so willing to ignore the findings of scientists.
Republicans are alone among major parties in Western democracies in denying the reality of climate change, a phenomenon that even puzzles many American conservatives. Denialism is growing among the rank and file, and the phenomenon is especially strong among those with college degrees. So it doesn’t seem to be a matter of lack of information, so much as active disinformation. Republican politicians are going along willingly, as they increasingly promote anti-scientific views on the environment. After the recent elections, GOP leaders are disbanding the House Select Committee on Global Warming.
What makes American conservatives different from other right-wing parties around the world? Note that it wasn’t always this way — there was a time when Republicans wouldn’t have attacked science so openly. I have a theory: it’s Al Gore’s fault.
Actually it’s not my theory, it comes from Randy Olson. For a while now Randy has been vocally skeptical about An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s critically-acclaimed documentary about global warming. I was initially unconvinced. Surely the positive effects of informing so many people about the dangers of climate change outweigh the political damage of annoying some conservatives? But Randy’s point, which I’m coming around to, was that for all the good the movie did at spreading information about climate change, it did equal or greater harm by politicizing it.
By most measures, Al Gore has had a pretty successful career. Vice-President during an administration characterized by peace and prosperity, winner of the popular vote total during his Presidential run, co-founder of Current TV, winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Nobel Prize. But to Republicans, he’s a punchline. It’s an inevitable outcome of the current system: Al Gore was the Democratic nominee for President; therefore, he must be demonized. It’s not enough that their candidate is preferable; the other candidate must be humiliated, made into a laughingstock. (Ask John Kerry, whose service in Vietnam was somehow used as evidence of his cowardice.) The conclusion is inevitable: if Al Gore becomes attached to some cause, that cause must be fought against.
Here is some evidence. You may think of Jay Leno as a completely vanilla and inoffensive late-night talk-show host. But he’s a savvy guy, and he knows his audience. Which is mostly older, white, suburban middle-class folks. Which political party does that sound like? Between January and September of 2010, Jay Leno made more jokes about Al Gore than about Sarah Palin. You read that right. This is while Palin was promoting books, making TV specials, stumping for candidates, and basically in the news every day, while Gore was — doing what exactly?
Once Al Gore became the unofficial spokesperson for concern about climate change, it was increasingly inevitable that Republicans would deny it on principle. This isn’t the only reason, not by a long shot (there’s something in there about vested interests willing to pour money into resisting energy policies that are unfriendly to fossil fuels), but it’s a big part. Too many Republicans have reached a point where devotion to “the truth” takes a distant back seat to a devotion to “pissing off liberals.” With often nasty implications.
What the United States does about climate change will be very important to the world. And what the U.S. does will be heavily affected by what Republicans permit. And Republicans’ views on climate change are largely colored by its association with Al Gore. As much as I hate to admit it, the net real impact of An Inconvenient Truth could turn out to be very negative.
Gore himself doesn’t deserve blame here. Using one’s celebrity to bring attention to an issue of pressing concern, and running for office in order to implement good policies, are two legitimate ways a person can help try to make the world a better place. In a healthy culture of discussion, they shouldn’t necessarily interfere; if any issue qualifies as “bipartisan,” saving the planet should be it. But in our current climate, no discussion of political import can take place without first passing through the lens of partisan advantage. Too bad for us.
This past week has seen a lot of news stories about a “Manhattan-sized” plume of oil found in the Gulf of Mexico by researchers near the site of the BP Deepwater Horizon well. This sent my BS detector into the yellow zone, so I have been trying to get a better idea of just how much oil remains in the Gulf from this disaster. It’s definitely not gone.
So I went to Wikipedia. There, you can find a reference to a New York Times article from the beginning of August, where the total volume of the leak was estimated to be 780,000 cubic meters of oil. Now, that’s clearly in the category of “reasonable guess” – no one knows for sure. But it is very unlikely to be a factor of two larger or smaller than that, so let’s just use that for now. There are a lot of other uncertainties, for example the amount of natural gas (methane) that came out with the oil, how the flow rate changed with time, and so on. But again, let’s just ignore those.
How big is 780,000 cubic meters? Simply taking the cube root of this number, this is the volume of a cube 92 meters on a side. It would look something like this next to the Pentagon:
I can imagine two reactions to this comparison: 1) Damn, that’s a lot of oil! 2) That’s tiny compared to the volume of the Gulf of Mexico! (I bet one’s political views might play a role in which reaction comes first…)
If we were to take this volume and spread it out in a layer 1 millimeter thick, it would cover an area of 780 million square meters, which is a square about 28 kilometers on a side. The satellite images of the oil slick showed affected regions much larger than that, from which I conclude that the thickness of the surface layer must have been much less than 1 millimeter at those times. (But check my math, somebody!)
If all the oil were dissolved uniformly into the Gulf, which has a total volume three
million billion times the size of the leak, the concentration would be about one third of one part per billion. That’s an interesting number all by itself, and not at all as small as it seems. But not all the oil leaked is in the Gulf – much of it evaporated and a good deal has been consumed by bacteria. But the rest of it went somewhere, right?
Now to the underwater plume. In the abstract of the Science Magazine paper that led to all the news stories, the authors said “Our findings indicate the presence of a continuous plume over 35 km in length, at approximately 1100 m depth that persisted for months without substantial biodegradation.” I cannot find the word “Manhattan” anywhere in their article, and so I have to conclude this was some mainstream media (WSJ?) person’s rather inept attempt at putting the size of the plume into perspective. It was parroted endlessly in the media as if it had meaning. In fact it’s quite misleading – clearly the term “Manhattan-sized” conjures up images of the whole island of Manhattan along with all the tall buildings…but as we have seen the total volume of oil leaked into the Gulf is about the size of one of those buildings.
So what is this plume? The authors define it as “a discrete spatial interval with hydrocarbon signals or signal surrogates (i.e., colored dissolved organic matter or aromatic hydrocarbon fluorescence) more than two standard deviations above the root-mean-square baseline variability.” That is, a place in the water where there is clearly oil present at detectable levels. It can be at quite low concentrations and still be detectable. One of the article’s main findings was that “Gas chromatographic analyses for only monoaromatic hydrocarbons of several water samples gathered using survey guidance confirm benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and total xylenes (BTEX) concentrations in excess of 50 μg L–1 within the plume at 16 km downrange from the well site.” This is all bad stuff we don’t want in the water or getting into the food we eat.
I assume a lot more scientific research will need to be done to know the actual damage that the presence of these oil components will do to marine life, the fisheries, and the food chain. The authors took a stab at making an estimate of how much oxygen depletion was occurring due to biodegradation of the oil, concluding that “it may require many months before microbes significantly attenuate the hydrocarbon plume to the point that oxygen minimum zones develop that are intense enough…to threaten Gulf fisheries.” That’s good news for marine life, I assume, but means that the subsurface oil will take quite some time to be bioegraded, which is bad in the longer term. So why hasn’t the media talked about that aspect of the article?
There is no question that this was a huge amount of oil leaked into the Gulf and that the impacts will be felt for many years to come. It is an epic disaster by any measure and may have consequences no one has considered yet. But we have to be rational about the real impacts of the disaster, and rational about the real risks involved in deep water drilling. The only way is to continue vigorously the kind of research we saw in the Science Magazine article, and debate the findings openly. BP needs to release publicly everything it knows about the spill.
Even if I’m on hiatus, there’s no reason not to post links to interesting things that I would be tweeting anyway. Blogs are still much better places to have conversations, whatever the Twitter triumphalists might think.
With that in mind: check out this story by Sharon Begley from Newsweek, on how media are slowly backing away from the Climategate hysteria. (Via PZ.) She very rightly highlights the real damage: the backing-away won’t undo all the misimpressions of scientific malfeasance that people absorbed when the story was at its height.
You may have heard that a major climate bill — the “American Power Act,” sponsored by John Kerry and Joe Lieberman — is trundling through Congress. Its prospects for passage are highly unclear; it’s a giant mess of a bill, which would have important consequences for any number of sectors in the economy, and the country’s attention is largely focused elsewhere at the moment. (A substantial fraction is focused on Justin Bieber, but I don’t really blame him.)
So what does the bill say? Here’s the very short version, from our sister blog 80 Beats:
The carbon emissions targets are: 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. That’s made to match the goals in the House bill that passed in 2009. In addition, the bill proposes putting a price on carbon.
23 ‘‘(B) WITHHOLDING ALLOWANCES.—
24 ‘‘(i) IN GENERAL.—Notwithstanding
25 subparagraph (A), subject to the condition
1 described in clause (ii), the Administrator
2 shall withhold from distribution under this
3 paragraph a quantity of emission allow-
4 ances equal to the lesser of—
5 ‘‘(I) 14.3 percent of the quantity
6 of emission allowances allocated under
7 section 781(a)(1) for the relevant vin-
8 tage year; and
9 ‘‘(II) 105 percent of the emission
10 allowances of the relevant vintage year
11 that the Administrator anticipates will
12 be distributed to merchant coal units
13 and long-term contract generators
14 under subsections (c) and (d).
There are good reasons why bills are written in turgid legal language; but it means that very few concerned citizens are going to be curling up with a good piece of legislation in the evening. That’s okay; we have multiple high-profile media outlets that are here to help us understand the complexities of these important changes to how our country does its business. I mean, right?
Sadly, no, as a wise person once said. CNN had a sit-down interview with Kerry and Lieberman last night, and here’s what we get:
Last night, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman appeared on John King’s CNN program to promote their climate bill, the American Power Act. The transcript is fairly lengthy, but at no point does King ask them to explain the provisions of their bill. Instead, he begins by asking whether they have 60 votes, tries to get them to explain why John McCain isn’t on the legislation, and then asks them to comment on the Sestak-Specter race in Pennsylvania. In fact, the clip the John King show posted online (which I embedded above) doesn’t even mention the climate bill.
Isn’t there room in the media landscape for just one TV news channel that would take seriously the responsibility of actually providing their viewers with useful information? It might be a small, niche market, but if the Golf Channel can thrive, surely it’s an experiment worth trying? I refuse to believe that providing useful information is of necessity such a tedious and boring activity that it can’t be made interesting, no matter how hard we try. We need to get Stephen Spielberg and Jay Rosen in a room together to figure out how to make a news channel that would honestly inform people in an entertaining way. Have them call me.
Two hundred thousand gallons per day of Gulf crude are leaking from a hole 5000 feet under the water’s surface in the wake of the still mysterious destruction of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon drilling platform last week . How and when it will be stopped is entirely unknown. The mayonnaise-like oil is being blown ashore into the nursery for shrimp for the whole region and the home of hundreds of the other species. Welcome to what may turn out to be the worst single human-caused environmental disaster ever. (Unless you regard global warming in general as a single event. Semantics.)
This thing is going to need a name. The Exxon Valdez incident was a spill – there was a finite amount of oil aboard the ship. A lot of oil: 11 million gallons (40 million liters). The new one in the Gulf of Mexico could blow past that, depending on whether present efforts to close the valve or drill a relief well work.
The fact that we called it the “Exxon Valdez” incident clearly indicates the responsible (if not guilty) party involved. So, though I like the moniker “Spill, Baby, Spill” from a political point of view, it doesn’t lay any blame and this thing is not a spill. It’s a leak, and BP leased the rig from Transocean LTD, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor. I think the responsibility has yet to be determined. If you rent a car, and wipe out a family in an accident because the steering was faulty, is it your fault or the car manufacturer’s? It may take some time, or even never be known, what happened a week ago to cause this tragedy.
The name of the rig was the Deepwater Horizon, but that doesn’t convey ownership or responsibility. Will this become known as the “BP Deepwater Horizon Spill”? The “Transocean/BP Leak”? The media seem to be stuck on “spill” and so I bet that will be in the name long term…and it will take a very long time to assess responsibility here.
My heart goes out to the families of the 11 lost on the rig, and to the thousands of fishermen and others whose livelihoods are in peril.
We’ve suspended new offshore drilling until we have understood this incident better. And no doubt a new debate about offshore drilling will ensue. This has certainly put the lie to those who claim that new modern drilling rigs are far safer than in the past, something even President Obama was saying as recently as April 2. Sigh.
In one of the comments to Daniel’s post on the stolen climate emails, techskeptic points to a wonderful chart at Information is Beautiful. The author did a great deal of gruntwork to lay out the various arguments of “The Global Warming Skeptics” vs. “The Scientific Consensus.” As far as I can tell, it’s a legitimately balanced view of both sides, complete with citations. If you’re confused about the various issues and accusations being bandied back and forth, there are worse places to start. This is a small piece of the full chart.
Of course, there is no such thing as a purely objective and judgment-free presentation of data, no matter how scrupulously the data itself may be collected; if nothing else, we make choices about what data to present. And a side-by-side comparison chart like this can’t help but give a slightly misleading impression of the relative merits of the arguments, by putting the conclusions of an overwhelming majority of honest scientists up against the arguments of a fringe collection of politically-motivated activists. But it’s certainly good to see the actual issues arrayed in point-counterpoint format.
Still, there remains a somewhat intractable problem: when people are arguing about issues that necessarily require expert knowledge that not everyone can possibly take the time to acquire for themselves, how do we make judgments about who to believe?
This problem has been brought home by the incredibly depressing news that James Randi has come out in favor of global-warming denialism (via PZ Myers). Randi is generally a hero among fans of reason and skepticism, so it’s especially embarrassing to see how incredibly weak his reasoning is here. It basically amounts to: “The climate is complicated. And scientists don’t know everything. And I admit I don’t know much about the field. Therefore … we have good reason to distrust the overwhelming majority of experts!” Why Randi chose not to apply his vaunted powers of skepticism to the motivations behind the denialists remains a mystery.
This gets to the heart of why I’ve always been skeptical of the valorization of “skepticism.” I don’t want to be skeptical for the sake of being skeptical — I want to be right. To maximize my chances of being right, I will try to collect what information I can and evaluate it rationally. But part of that information has to include the nature of the people making arguments on either side of a debate. If one side consists of scientists who have spent years trying to understand a complicated system, and the other is a ragtag collection of individuals with perfectly obvious vested interests in the outcome, it makes sense to evaluate their claims accordingly.
By all means, we should apply our own powers of reason to every interesting problem. But when our reasoning leads to some conclusion at odds with the apparent consensus of a lot of smart people who seem to know what they’re talking about — whether it’s on the nature of dark energy, the best way to quantize gravity, the most effective route to health care reform, or the state of the environment — the burden is on us to understand the nature of that difference and try to reconcile it, not to take refuge in “experts don’t know everything” and related anti-intellectual piffle.
At this very moment the nations of the world are meeting in Copenhagen to discuss the Earth’s climate. 192 countries are represented, and for the next two weeks they will try to come up with a strategy to deal with climate change. Obama will show up in 10 days, as will other heads-of-state. Unfortunately, much of the media coverage (at least in the US) includes discussion of what is being called “ClimateGate”. Someone hacked into the email system of the University of East Anglia, and stole hundreds of private emails from climate researchers around the world. Let us remember that Watergate had to do with an investigation of the burglars, while in this case there seems to be scant attention to the crime (i.e. stealing and publishing personal email), and much more attention to the “incendiary” emails themselves.
Scientists are people too. Amazingly enough, we get frustrated and annoyed. We have fights with colleagues. We let our emotions get in the way of dispassionate peer review. We send emails we probably shouldn’t. This should be no surprise to anyone. There are immense pressures on scientists working on “hot button” issues like climate change. They’re constantly being assaulted and questioned (mostly by people with no particular background or training). And, on occasion, individuals end up saying things and doing things they shouldn’t. Looking over the stolen emails, there are certainly some unfortunate revelations. But there is nothing even remotely indicating widespread fabrication of results. As far as I know, not a single scientific finding is now in doubt because of these emails. No papers will be withdrawn. Nature has a summary of the [lack of] content of the emails. A lot more detail can be found here. And the IPCC weighs in here.
I am not an expert on climate change. If the lives of our children and grandchildren depended on questions having to do with cosmology or general relativity, I would most certainly have a direct, informed opinion. And I would hope that my opinion, and those of my colleagues, would be solicited and respected, given that we’ve dedicated our lives to studying the relevant subject matter. Likewise, I respect the conclusions of my esteemed colleagues in the fields of climate research. And there is absolute and clear consensus on one fundamental point: the actions of human beings are altering our climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of thousands of scientists from all over the world, made this startlingly clear. I highly encourage you to read the report (or at least the executive summary). As if that isn’t enough, the World Meteorological Organization just released a report indicating that the last decade was the warmest on record, and that the warming trend shows every sign of continuing.
Now, there are certainly researchers in the field that dissent. This is part of the nature of the scientific enterprise. We’re all trained to be skeptical and contrary. Be leery of received wisdom. Question everything, and try to build your own understanding from first principles. Along the way, on any topic whatsoever, you find some scientists that wander down some misbegotten path and get stuck. Sometimes the individual is Einstein, and they’re about to blow open entire fields. But the vast majority of the time, these radically contrary scientists are simply misguided and wrong. Which is okay. It’s part of the process. And it keeps everyone on their toes.
You can find scientists that believe the Universe is not expanding. They are wrong. You can find scientists that believe there is no evidence for evolution. They are wrong. And you can find scientists that believe there is no evidence for anthropogenic global warming. They are wrong.
This is not to say that there aren’t open questions or issues in these fields, nor that we understand everything perfectly. It’s simply a statement that the evidence is compelling and overwhelming, and the basic findings are no longer in doubt. Any future theories will incorporate and subsume what we already know. Just like General Relativity subsumed Newtonian gravity, without nullifying the inverse square law. Global warming is happening. We are (at least part of) the cause. Perhaps the details of what will happen in the next few decades are unclear. Perhaps the worst-case scenario won’t come to pass. It’s a very complicated, interconnected, non-linear system. All we know for sure is that human activities are introducing a new forcing term into our climate, and that this term is already having measurable effects. The Earth is really big. Go outside and look out across the mountains or the oceans or the sky. There’s a lot of room out there. It’s amazing that we can have a serious, global impact on this massive chunk of rock. For reference, I calculate that the entire biomass of humanity is 6.8 billion x 68 kg (150 lbs) = 5 x 1011 kg. This is one hundred million millionth the mass of the Earth. And yet, we’re having an effect on the entire planet.
Since this issue has profound consequences for centuries to come, I would claim it is the responsibility of every citizen of the world to educate themselves on the topic. It seems to me that each of us has three straightforward choices:
1. go back to school, get a PhD in climate sciences, and form one’s own informed opinions about what’s going on.
2. trust the experts.
3. trust the fringe.
Note that the fringe consists almost entirely of non-experts. And believing the fringe requires you to be convinced there’s a vast scientific conspiracy, with the willing collusion of thousands of experts around the world. With no obvious motive or agenda. As a practicing scientist, I find it farcical that people imagine scientists capable of such a wide-ranging, organized conspiracy. We’re much too eager to prove each other wrong. And we’re much too stubborn and iconoclastic to just go along with the consensus, if we pick up any whiff of doubt. On the other hand, it is easy to see why some are interested in questioning global warming. It is indeed an inconvenient truth, after all.
We are altering our planet’s climate. This is not in doubt. How can anyone not be disturbed by the knowledge that we are fundamentally changing macroscopic properties of the Earth, our only home?
[NOTE: Sean just posted on the same topic. This just goes to show that even fellow bloggers have trouble coordinating. Much less thousands of scientists engaging in vast, motiveless conspiracies.]