Archive for the 'science' Category

Items of Note: Life, Choices, Life Choices

Remember how Planet Earth was/still is completely amazing?  Discovery/BBC (the same people who did Planet Earth) is doing another series in the same vein, with incredible nature footage, impressive feats of film-making, ants catching a fungus that explodes their heads (or at least I hope- That’s my favorite episode, hands-down.  That and the shark that eats the seal in mid-air).  It’s Life, and you can watch clips and an explanation here (after a commercial). Oprah is narrating, and it’s a pleasure to hear her calm voiceover as this Komodo dragon tries to eat a water buffalo.

If that clip didn’t make you hungry enough to stop reading and go get a snack, check out this article from the NYT’s Green Inc column.  It summarizes a study of the behavior of consumers who are given green shopping choices, and who buy environmentally-friendly things.  The gist is, viewing ecofriendly shopping options makes us more altruistic.  But actually buying green stuff makes us smug, thieving jerks:

“People do not make decisions in a vacuum,” the researchers concluded, adding that “while mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.”

The experimenters attribute this to a “single-action bias”, which leads people facing big problems to rationalize making one small responsive action as ‘enough’ to then consider those problems solved.  I’m not sure how that progresses to petty theft (read the article) but perhaps green consumers feel they deserve a little extra for their troubles?  I recognize myself in the single action bias description, for sure. I’ll check for the other part later this week (I need to stock up on recycled TP- will it cause me to cut off an old lady in the parking lot?  Stay tuned!)

Third noted item is also scholarly. I’ve got all the responses I want from graduate programs, and I’m deciding between the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I welcome opinions to flavor my other research.

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Future Coming Up

I’ve been thinking plenty about the Future lately.  Not about my personal future, not any more than normally, but the Future Of People and Where We’ll Go, and mostly about how I hope it will be pretty cool with spaceships around, and to that we can pull together long enough to make that work.  This is partly because I went to the Air and Space Museum this weekend, and that conjures all sorts of cultural memories of what the Future should look like.  This is also because 2010 is the first year we’ve gotten too that’s a good, round, space-age sounding year.  Also I saw Avatar today, and if that doesn’t make you want some cool space gadgets, and then remember to worry about how humans make moral choices, nothing will.  Not that it’s a morally nuanced movie or anything, but in portraying people as either so flatly evil or so inherently good it reminds you we’re not.

Anyway, we’re getting there, to the Future with the Gadgets, day by day.  Since I’m probably a bit to early to catch the first wave of immigration too the outer planets myself, I’ll have to be content just reading the neat stuff we come up with on the way.  Dig this:  self-assembling solar cells!  That could be cool.  Meat grown in petri dishes!  Barbecue without guilt.  Though Barbecue is so delicious that it’s really hard to feel guilty eating it anyway.  And check out this article on using thorium instead of uranium for safer, cleaner, and cheaper nuclear energy.

In conclusion, I am looking forward to the Future, especially if we get those neat wraparound screens like they have in Avatar.  And if we remember to behave politely once we get into space.

“Science”, “Journalism”, “Scandal”, “Irony”…

Friday I saw this headline from CBS posted at Huffpo:  EPA May Have Surpressed Report Skeptical Of Global Warming.  Shocking, yes?  After all that talk about evidence and science and facts leading to decisions, Obama might have let us down.  I cried a little inside in case it was true- after 8 years of not being able to believe a word coming from the administration, trust doesn’t come easily- but skipped reading the article until later, as I had actual work to do.

Got around to it yesterday and it does indeed sound bad.  CBS makes it sound very, very bad.

Back story:  in March, the EPA  issued a report instructing the government to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, since they endanger the US.  Historic, etc., helped lead to the initial passage of Waxman-Markey last week.  Here is the EPA page detailing that recommendation, providing supporting documents and such.  From here on, I’ll call that the ‘endangerment finding’.

Last week, a conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, provided CBS with internal EPA emails that are the basis of this uproar.  An EPA employee, Alan Carlin- an economist, not a scientist- wrote a report critical of the scientific basis of the endangerment finding- which relied on the 2007 IPCC report on climate change- as being outdated.  He also contended that the cost of mitigating the impact of climate change would be less than the cost of regulating greenhouse gases.  The CEI’s emails from his supervisor seem to indicate that the report was not taken into account for the final EPA report on climate change sent to the White House a couple months ago.  The EPA says they did send his report around for peer review, however, and dealt with some of his objections in the final document.

The CBS article speculates that the EPA put out its report too quickly to be fully researched (you will find the same charge on the CEI website linked above), dwells on the irony of the new administration suppressing science (while hedging that it only ‘might’ have suppressed science, but wouldn’t it be ironic if they did!), and quotes several Republican congresspersons and a representative of CEI as decrying the EPA for ignoring the report.  Which again, the EPA says it didn’t.  CBS did not check the contents of the employee’s “suppressed” report against the published EPA report, to see if his concerns were indeed mentioned, as the EPA claimed.  CBS also did not double check to see if his “suppressed” report made any sense.

Shocking!  What depths will the EPA sink to next?  Bush and Co. suppressed real science, and now Obama’s suppressing…um, fake science.  Turns out that Carlin’s report was largely cut/pasted from a few anti-climate-science blogs and lobbyist groups, with pronouns changed.  Deepclimate has an article here and here detailing Carlin’s sources, and the good folks at RealClimate go more in depth here on the origins and veracity of the report  (if you just read one, read that one).  It’s ok for CBS to have missed that whole thing, since they don’t have access to the internet or basic accepted climate science or anything.  Bah.

And the charge the the EPA ignored Carlin’s report altogether?  Well, let’s head to the Federal Register the endangerment finding was reported in- Vol 74, no 78, from April 24th, 2009.  Middle column of page 18894 (or page 10 of this 26 page pdf excerpting that Federal Register that the EPA website above happily and transparently links you to) reads:

This addresses a number of concerns raised by commenters about the July 2008 version of the TSD, arguing that it relied too heavily on the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (published 2007), which some argued was either not current enough or not specific enough to U.S. conditions. We note that the IPCC North American chapter (of the Working Group II volume) on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability covers the U.S. and Canada (not Mexico) and that the general findings in that chapter (drawn from many individual studies for the U.S.) are indeed applicable to U.S. conditions. Even with more recent information available, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report remains a standard reference, essentially serving as the benchmark against which new findings over the next few years will be compared. Therefore it also serves as a robust and valuable reference for purposes of this proposal. The TSD has also been edited or updated in a number of places to reflect specific comments received on the July 2008 version, and to reflect comments from an additional round of review by the federal scientists following the incorporation of the more recent scientific findings.

Sounds like they considered concerns that the 2007 IPCC report was not current enough to me.   And Carlin’s accusation that they hadn’t taken into account his cost analysis of mitigation vs. regulation?  From the same page 10 of that pdf, third column:

The Administrator also believes it is inappropriate, in considering whether greenhouse gases endanger public health or welfare, to consider potential private behavior aimed at alleviating some of the effects of climate change. Just as the Administrator would not consider, for example, the availability of asthma medication in determining whether criteria air pollutants endanger public health, so the Administrator will not consider private behavior in the endangerment determination at hand. On the contrary, ameliorative steps of that kind would attest to the fact of endangerment.

Brava- and oh snap, Administrator Jackson.

Ok, so Carlin’s report is lifted from lobbyists and science-challenged blogs, and doesn’t really address the EPA report question of whether greenhouse gases are a danger to human health in the US in the first place, and the EPA acknowledges his two main concerns in their report anyway.  Hasn’t stopped him or the CEI from making this a big deal, but now we know.

CBS: WHY would you report this story this way?  With your “well the EPA saiiiid, buuuuuuuut… all these other people said so who knows!?” It took me less than 10 minutes to find that EPA report, read the contents list, and double-check Carlin’s assertions.  AND I was drinking a beer doing it.  You people are supposed to be the reporters.  Report, don’t regurgitate.  Sheesh.  Makin’ me look stuff up when I could be watchin’ Star Trek.  Nuts to you guys.

A Crisis By Any Other Name

Sounds a lot nicer!

NYT article on more effective terminology for environmental issues.  A group called EcoAmerica is trying to figure out how to talk about it to make more people care:

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, is to reframe the issue using different language. “Energy efficiency” makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more effective to speak of “saving money for a more prosperous future.” In fact, the group’s surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop the term “the environment” and talk about “the air we breathe, the water our children drink.”

“Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics or technology,” said the e-mail account of the group’s study.

I’ve been interested in how to relate what good science is, and what it means, to the general public for a very long time.  Back in school, I was in a whole student group dedicated to the problem- Student Pugwash.  The nature of hypothesis and observation and testable results- that’s fun for me.  And ambiguous, which I also find kind of fun, but I get it’s not for everybody.

Facts are a lot more marketable when you can say they’re absolutes, and those are pretty rare if you’re doing science right.  Experts aren’t supposed to be reasonably sure, they’re supposed to absolutely know- or at least act like it on CNN.  But honest scientists will only tell you how certain they are about their facts, and under what conditions.  And when we get to something as big and weird as climate change, which is inconvenient to deal with anyway, talking about the levels of certainty of your results makes the results too easy to dismiss.

I do think scientists should explain their work in terms that the public can understand, after they publish all those fancy papers to impress their peers.  I think that’s a basic responsibility that everyone involved in expanding knowledge has: dissemination, communication.  But that’s not what EcoAmerica is pushing- they want communication without the sticky science.

Ah, but as a dedicated climate warrior, does it matter how EcoAmerica convinces people to believe, as long as they do believe?

Yes.  It fundamentally does.  Because if your only argument is one of feeeeeelings, then it’s easily broken by other feelings.  Like laziness and hunger and boredom.  And frustration-especially frustration.  Galvanizing whatever “undecideds” with patriotic verbage goes nowhere when they face the difficult realities of what the science actually means, how we solve the associated technical problems, and how we structure a political solution to this mess. Then we’re back where we started, only now the folks are frustrated.  We have to give people the reasons and facts they need to make informed and principled decisions- whether they want to make those decisions or not.

EcoAmerica, I applaud your intention of talking effectively to the public about this.  And I get that you feel  handicapped by the abysmal lack of science education in this country.  But give the public some credit- treat them like idiots, and you’ll lose them.  Convince them on a slippery “American ideals” basis (some of us are apparently ok with torture, so maybe that’s not the firmest foundation right now), and they’ll follow you nowhere past the sentiment.  You’ll do better by translating the difficult issues you plan to avoid to those idiots- put it in clear terms, explain what the science means, explain the problems both technological and political that we face- and the idiots will hopefully surprise you.

Easier said than done!  Always sounded that way at Pugwash, too.  But if you in the know don’t try, who will?


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