Browsing the archives for the environment category.


The Relativity of Science

environment, science

We are nearing the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. Yes, I know we’re all tingly with anticipation. But I do have a point.

Einstein had published a special theory of relativity in 1906, and both the special and general theories go way over my head, so I will not be explaining them. All I can tell you is that the famous E = mc2 equation came out in 1906.

However, the story goes, Einstein wanted to incorporate gravity into his theory. So he thought and thought, and then he came up with some mathematical equations to show how all this stuff he was thinking about might work. According to Wikipedia, “These equations specify how the geometry of space and time is influenced by whatever matter and radiation are present, and form the core of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” Einstein presented these equations to the Prussian Academy of Science in 1915, and he published his General Theory of Relativity in 1916.

At that point, it was all arithmetic, using approximation methods, whatever those are. After the equations were published, more physicists studied and elaborated on the equations and came up with other mathematical models to explain stuff like black holes and the Big Bang. Einstein also kept working, and in 1917 he came up with a theory called the cosmological constant that assumed the cosmos is static, which later was shown to be not true. So the cosmological constant theory was tossed. But scientists continued to work on general relativity.

At the time Einstein published his general relativity equations, there was hardly any empirical data to corroborate them. Einstein had thought way outside the box and pushed concepts of the laws of physics way beyond what that had actually been tested or observed. That’s largely because at the time there was no way to test most of it.

As time went on a few things were observed that seemed to fit Einstein’s model, but serious testing of some parts of the theory didn’t begin until the 1950s, at a point technology made testing possible.  Through the years various tests and observations made possible by advances in technology have confirmed that matter and energy and whatnot do behave as Einstein had predicted they would.  And testing continues. In 2013 news stories announced that physicists had observed more stuff in space that provided an “unprecedented” test of Einstein’s predictions, and the predictions held. However,

Scientists know general relativity, proposed by Albert Einstein in 1915, isn’t the complete story. While it does very well describing large, massive systems, it’s incompatible with quantum mechanics, which governs the physics of the very small. For something extremely small, yet extremely massive — such as a black hole — the two theories contradict each other, and scientists are left without a physical description. [6 Weird Facts About Gravity]

So after all this time, gravity partly remains a mystery. Scientists are still not sure in all particulars exactly how gravity works. There’s still a lot about the universe that confounds the models and catches people off guard. Stephen Hawking wrote,

Despite having had some great successes, not everything is solved. We do not yet have a good theoretical understanding of the observations that the expansion of the universe is accelerating again, after a long period of slowing down. Without such an understanding, we cannot be sure of the future of the universe. Will it continue to expand forever? Is inflation a law of Nature? Or will the universe eventually collapse again? New observational results and theoretical advances are coming in rapidly. Cosmology is a very exciting and active subject. We are getting close to answering the age old questions. Why are we here? Where did we come from?

I think Hawking is overstepping science with the “why” question, but I concede he’s a lot smarter than I am.

Science being what it is, it’s likely someday some physics nerd will publish a theory that shows how the discrepancies between Einstein’s work and quantum mechanics might be resolved, and then they’ll spend a century or so testing it. Science at this level is never settled.

Now on to today’s most contentious science issue — climate change. (I bet you can see where I’m going now.)

A Harvard professor on the history of science named Naomi Oreskes says that scientists today are being way too cautious with their climate change predictions.  “The year just concluded is about to be declared the hottest one on record, and across the globe climate change is happening faster than scientists predicted,” she writes.

Of course, in popular media we are perpetually being told that climate change is not happening at all, but let’s go on. Professor Oreskes continues,

Science is conservative, and new claims of knowledge are greeted with high degrees of skepticism. When Copernicus said the Earth orbited the sun, when Wegener said the continents drifted, and when Darwin said species evolved by natural selection, the burden of proof was on them to show that it was so. In the 18th and 19th centuries, this conservatism generally took the form of a demand for a large amount of evidence; in the 20th century, it took on the form of a demand for statistical significance.

We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence. Typically, scientists apply a 95 percent confidence limit, meaning that they will accept a causal claim only if they can show that the odds of the relationship’s occurring by chance are no more than one in 20. But it also means that if there’s more than even a scant 5 percent possibility that an event occurred by chance, scientists will reject the causal claim. It’s like not gambling in Las Vegas even though you had a nearly 95 percent chance of winning.

Compare/contrast to the infamous “one percent doctrine” of Dick Cheney — if there is even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction the United States must act as if this were a certainty.  So we just need 1 percent proof to launch a war, but the Right now demands 100 percent proof before lifting a finger to address climate change.

Oreskes argues that scientists have been so well trained to avoid jumping to conclusions that practically no amount of empirical proof is good enough to dispel the qualifiers and the caution. In other words, in the world of science, nothing is ever settled. No scientific theory, even stuff that’s been accepted for generations and observed and tested to within an inch of its life, is ever placed beyond all doubt.

And the absolute worst sin, the thing that will get one booted out of the Science Club, is being thought of as too credulous. So no matter how many tons of empirical evidence one may collect to support one’s theories, lectures and published papers are always embroidered in language that gives the scientist an escape hatch if part of it is challenged by new data.

And then when powerful monied factions, such as the fossil fuel industry, find science inconvenient, the simplest way to discredit it is to point to the qualifiers and the caution. Scientists aren’t certain yet, so it’s too soon to act.

But scientists are never certain. They might be certain of a particular fact, like the boiling point of water, but on the level of theory they are never certain. There’s always something more that could be learned, on some level. That’s the catch.

It’s also the case that theories are big, complicated beasts that could be partly right and partly wrong, like Einstein’s General Relativity probably is mostly right except on a quantum physics level, where it seems to be missing something. So if data come in showing that some parts of a projection are not working as anticipated, this doesn’t necessarily mean the entire model is wrong. If several scientists independently come up with different projections that don’t match in all particulars, that doesn’t mean they have no idea what they’re doing and we should just ignore them.

As I understand it, climate change theory really didn’t get off the ground until the 1970s, which makes it relatively new. Data collected by satellites and such have provided scientists with huge amounts of information about the Earth’s climate and what affects it that wasn’t available before, and so even as they collect data and formulate predictions they’re still facing a huge learning curve. So it’s no wonder they don’t speak in absolutes, but with some caution.

At the same time, the denialists seize on every uncertainty and wave it around as “proof” that climate change science is entirely debunked. For example, although the earth keeps breaking heat records every year, for the past 16 years atmospheric temperatures have not changed. As far as the denialists  (I refuse to call them “skeptics”; skeptics are people who doubt and question, and denialism is just knee-jerk dogma) are concerned, this is “proof” all models showing climate change are just a hoax. Scientists actually have several explanations for why atmospheric temperatures are stable and expect the “hiatus” to reverse itself, possibly soon.

I started this post by talking about Einstein. Recently I had an exchange with a denialist who told me that science is “black and white” and based on empirical evidence,  and (he said) there is no empirical evidence for climate change. Actually there’s tons of empirical evidence; the challenge isn’t getting the evidence, but interpreting it. Unlike Einstein’s theory, which began as ideas expressed in mathematical equations that mostly weren’t tested with any thoroughness until after the great genius had died, and which still haven’t been completely proved after a century, climate change science grew out of the empirical evidence.

But when I brought up gravity as something that still isn’t understood in any “black and white” way, this individual claimed Einstein’s theories were entirely empirical, and I didn’t know what I was talking about. I even explained the testing history of the Theory of General Relativity and provided a dictionary definition of “empirical” — based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic. He wouldn’t budge. Because Einstein’s theories have been proved correct today, he said, they were “empirical” all along.

And, you know, when someone is sunk that deeply into pure illogic, there’s not a whole lot one can do to change his mind. But while it’s futile to discuss any of this with the dogmatic denialists, I think it’s important to keep talking about this, because there are people out there who are not dogmatic denialists but just haven’t heard all the facts who might be persuaded.

BTW, this year might be the Year the Pope Stopped Being Catholic, as far as the Right is concerned. His Holiness Pope Francis is expected to issue either an edict or an encyclical, according to various news sources that probably don’t know the difference between an edict and an encyclical either, that climate change is a moral imperative that Catholics must address. Already Fox News has declared that Pope Francis has aligned himself with “environmental extremists who favor widespread population control and wealth distribution.” I project sooner or later they will declare the Pope is a God-hating liberal. With righties, either you’re with ’em, or you’re the enemy.

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Are There Hats?

environment, science

Finally, a sane debate on climate change.

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Persistently Ignorant

environment

We go through this every winter. Every snow fall, every cold snap, and the Right hoots derisively that this proves global warming is a hoax.

And then scientists attempt to patiently explain why global warming actually makes cold snaps worse. Cold snaps and global warming go hand-in-hand, even. And, of course, the Right will have none of that.

It’s fascinating that the Right is so certain all those scientists sounding the alarm about global warming are only saying that because they are being paid to say it. I’m not sure who stands to gain from all this largesse. I don’t see the green tech companies having enough cash to pay off 97 plus percent of the world’s climate scientists. The fact that the petrochemical industry really does have a lot of cash and stands to lose much future income if fossil fuels are phased out doesn’t seem to get their attention.

And while I’m there — see “Dark Money” Funds Climate Change Denial Effort in Scientific American.

The denialism on the Right takes two forms. One, you’ve got the usual cretins (I’m convinced one must have a negative IQ to write for Newsbusters) who don’t look at the science at all but instead pick apart comments made by non-scientist news personalities. The other is to point to disagreements among climate scientists as to precisely how global climate change functions.

Apparently, until scientists are 100 percent in agreement about the cause and nature of a particular phenomenon, we can just ignore the science. By that logic, since scientists are still struggling to understand how gravity works, maybe we can persuade the Koch Brothers to step off a cliff.

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AFP: Avarice on Steroids

disasters, natural and unnatural, environment, science, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity is warning Congress against spending money on Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

Earlier this week, AFP, which is chaired by [David] Koch and believed to be financed by several other plutocrats from the New York City region, released a letter warning members of Congress not to vote for the proposed federal aid package for victims of the storm that swept New Jersey, New York City and much of the surrounding area in October. An announcement on the group’s website says that the vote next week for the Sandy aid package will be a “key vote”—meaning senators who support sending money for reconstruction could face an avalanche of attack ads in their next election. Already, opposition to the bill is growing, although it passed one procedural hurdle last night. …

… Koch’s top deputy in New Jersey, a surly gentleman named Steve Lonegan, who heads the local AFP state chapter, called the aid package a “disgrace.” “This is not a federal government responsibility,” Lonegan told reporters. “We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves.”

As was asked in a famous joke — Who do you mean by “we,” Kemo Sabe? This is especially rich considering all the Koch Brothers/oil industry money that has gone into discrediting climate science. The AFP website, btw, is screaming about the looming “fiscal cliff” tax increase that would, if Dems get their way, only affect the upper 2 percent.

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Grapes of Wrath

environment

Fish kills? I was cruising around looking for news this morning, and I kept coming across stories about fish kills. Apparently, in many parts of the country dead fish are washing up on riverbanks and beaches wholesale. Here are just a couple of these stories, one from Texas

Thousands of dead fish are washing ashore along the Texas coast from the Colorado River to Galveston Island and Parks and Wildlife biologists suspect low oxygen levels off shore may be to blame.

— and here’s the situation in Iowa

In Iowa, about 58,000 fish died along a 42-mile stretch of the Des Moines River, according to state officials, and the cause of death appeared to be heat. Biologists measured the water at 97 degrees in multiple spots.

If you do a news google for “fish kill” you get recent news stories from all over the country about fish dying in rivers, big and small; ponds, lakes, and oceans. Fish kills are nothing new, but usually they happen more randomly.

OK, one more

In Illinois, heat and lack of rain has dried up a large swath of Aux Sable Creek, the state’s largest habitat for the endangered greater redhorse, a large bottom-feeding fish, said Dan Stephenson, a biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“We’re talking hundreds of thousands (killed), maybe millions by now,” Stephenson said. “If you’re only talking about game fish, it’s probably in the thousands. But for all fish, it’s probably in the millions if you look statewide.”

And it struck me that if ever a situation deserved a biblical write-up, America in the Age of Global Climate Change is it. Something like,

“And the LORD saw the children of Columbus fouling their green land with many carbon emissions; and He brought forth scientists to preach to the people to change their ways. And some heeded the scientists and the prophet Al Gore and wished to reduce their carbon footprints and develop alternative energies. But many others were deceived by the Koch demons, and they laughed at the prophecy and chanted, drill baby drill. And, verily, the LORD sent a mighty heat wave, and drought, and boiled the fish in the rivers and burned the corn in the fields, and threatened the children of Columbus with rising food prices. Yet the evil children turned up their air conditioners and refused to notice the signs.”

Stuff like this happens over and over again in the Bible. You’d think people who claim to read the Bible would notice the pattern.

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Remember the Gulf

disasters, natural and unnatural, environment

It’s a gorgeous Memorial Day here in Westchester County, New York. I’m sure lots of people are heading for the shores of New Jersey and Long Island today. Owners of seasonal businesses must be very happy.

I don’t know what the weather is like along the Gulf Coast today, but I suspect the moods are darker. “Top kill” failed after all. The oil could keep gushing for months. This is the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It’s affecting fisheries, tourism, shipping, and wildlife.

Whether the spill is the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, as some are saying, is questionable; I think the young folks have forgotten the Dust Bowl. But it’s really, really bad nonetheless.

I read somewhere that the oil spill isn’t expected to affect the U.S. economy, but I think whoever said that must be a fool. How can it not?

This was in a news article from yesterday (emphasis added):

“This scares everybody: the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far,” BP’s chief operating officer Doug ­Suttles said yesterday.

“Many of the things we’re ­trying have been done on the surface before, but have never been tried at 5,000ft.”

However, back when BP was applying for a permit to drill in the gulf, the company declared it could handle a spill ten times larger than the one it can’t handle now.

In other words, the permit application was written by the company’s marketing department, not the engineering department. I’d bet money there were engineers at BP who realized there were contingencies they weren’t prepared for, and they were told to shut up about it if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Well, as Bill Kristol brilliantly said, offshore drilling is perfectly safe “except where there is a disaster like this.” No, really, he said that.

For the record, Kristol is also wrong when he said the Exxon Valdez spill was worse.

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How the Right Wing Noise Machine Manufactured “Climategate”

environment, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

Interesting

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And Don’t Call It Climategate

environment

The correct name is SwiftHack.

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There Is No Climategate

environment, science, Wingnuts Being Wingnuts

As you know, when it comes to facts righties operate with the mother of all double standards. A rightie can pull completely fabricated “facts” out of his (and her) ass with impunity, but if anyone they don’t like is even a tad imprecise, the Right flames it into a scandal that never dies.

So it is with “Climategate.” As you probably have heard, a few days ago more than 3,000 private emails and other documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were published on the Internet, allegedly by hackers. (I read an argument yesterday that CRU wasn’t necessarily hacked, but in any event emails that were meant to be private were made public.)

By misconstruing scientific colloquialisms — for example, the use of the word “trick” — and seizing upon peer-review type criticism of a few research papers, the Right has managed to misinterpret the emails into “proof” that global climate change is not just a mistaken idea, but a deliberate hoax — a conspiracy so immense it includes most of the world’s earth scientists, including 97 percent of climatologists. Amazing.

The reason this non-scandal will not go away anytime soon is revealed in a Wall Street Journal headline: “Cap and Trade Is Dead.” In other words, vested interests are involved. Vested interests trump truth every day of the week and twice on Tuesday.

A blogger at RealClimate grumbles,

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords. The truly paranoid will put this down to the hackers also being in on the plot though.

At The Guardian, George Monbiot calls on scientists to stop waiting for the screeching righties to shut up and move on to the next non-issue. Monbiot has been on the front lines battling climate-change deniers and knows how crazy — and how obsessed — they are. But, he says, it is true that a few sloppily researched papers were published that should not have been published, a point that was the topic of many of the emails. The fact that this happened is genuinely damaging. The deniers have lied with impunity for years, Monbiot says, but that is all the more reason for science to be much more careful.

Of course, in Rightieworld Monbiot’s article was interpreted to be an admission that climate change might be a hoax. Never forget that these people have the reading comprehension level of turnips.

I know it can be exhausting to deal with righties; while you are correcting one lie, they’ve thought of ten more. There is no more point in “debating” issues with them than in explaining physics to an anthill. But I think it is important to get facts out for the public record, if only because the world is full of lazy hack journalists who don’t bother to check facts, either, unless you do it for them and then rub their noses in the facts so they notice.

I also think Monbiot is right in that care must be taken not to give whackjobs any molehills they can turn into a mountain. For example, one of the several reasons I stopped giving money to the National Abortion Rights Action League several years ago, in spite of my being adamantly pro-choice, is that sometime in the mid-1990s I observed NARAL spokespeople stupidly and unnecessarily handing ammunition to the troglodytes.

This was in the 1990s, when the fetus people seized upon so-called “partial birth” abortions (more accurately called a “D&X” procedure) as an issue to crusade against. NARAL released some figures on the number of such procedures done in the U.S. each year. Unfortunately, the NARAL numbers were only of third-trimester procedures, and the spokespeople didn’t make that clear. Since D&X was mostly performed in the second trimester, the actual number of D&X procedures in total was at least three times higher (the total was between 1,500 and 3,000, depending on who you asked, so it still was a small number). Further, NARAL spokespeople said the D&X was only performed when medically necessary, which was true of third trimester procedures but not always of second-trimester procedures.

I realize the NARAL people probably were taken in by the Right’s incessant yapping about “late-term abortion” and conflation of “late-term abortion” and “partial birth abortion” to be the same thing. To most sane people, a second-trimester abortion is not late term. Still, there is no excuse for being sloppy when presenting data.

Not surprisingly, the abortion criminializers seized upon this discrepancy, and for several months after the opinion section of nearly every newspaper in America was given over to denouncements of the lies of NARAL. And it became an article of faith among “pundits” that pro-rights activists were just as likely to lie as anti-rights activists, never mind that the criminalizers couldn’t string together two truthful statements in a row if they tried. Not that they ever try. From “rapes don’t cause pregnancies” to “abortions cause breast cancer” (they don’t, btw) it would take encyclopedias to catalog all of the misinformation that has come out of the Right on abortion. But NARAL trips up just once, and we never hear the end of it.

So it is with “climategate”; we’ll never hear the end of it. Unfortunately, this will likely slow our response — already too slow — to global climate change.

Update: Talk about a tool — this guy goes on and on about the glory of truth and the wonders of science, then sides with the liars. Amazing. But to really plum the depths of this guy’s critical thinking skills, check this out:

The concept of honor comes from the base of truth and is why it is so prominent in the military and also explains why the vast majority of people in the military come from Judeo/Christian backgrounds.

Yes, in nations in which the vast majority of people are either Christian or Jewish to one degree or another, it’s a safe bet that most people in the military come from Judeo-Christian backgrounds. Hysterical. And the idea that the concept of “honor” is unique to the Abrahamic religions reveals a grotesque ignorance of other religions and cultures. (See, for example, the Code of Bushido).

The phony climategate non-scandal does reveal a divide, but it’s not so much a cultural divide as a social-psychological divide. But we’ve had this discussion before, so I’ll stop now.

Update: The Economist has a good backgrounder on the “Climategate” mess.

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Alternative Universes

environment

In his column today Paul Krugman writes that the congresspersons who opposed the climate bill last week are traitors to the planet. And he added,

But if you watched the debate on Friday, you didn’t see people who’ve thought hard about a crucial issue, and are trying to do the right thing. What you saw, instead, were people who show no sign of being interested in the truth. They don’t like the political and policy implications of climate change, so they’ve decided not to believe in it — and they’ll grab any argument, no matter how disreputable, that feeds their denial.

Well, yes. No one denies the science behind global climate change is hard to grasp. The very fact of calling it “global warming” even is a problem since it doesn’t mean the globe is getting uniformly warmer, a point lost on the wingnuts who celebrate as vindication every time some part of the planet is unseasonably cool.

It’s an article of faith among the wingnuts that there is a vast underground of scientists who believe global climate change is a hoax, and their beliefs are somehow being suppressed by a minority of powerful scientific uber-lords who are using the global warming issue to create a socialistic one-world government.

In fact, not only do the overwhelming majority of earth scientists think that global climate change is real, 97 percent of climatologists say humans play a role. The biggest doubters are petroleum geologists — wonder why? — and meteorologists, who are not especially knowledgeable about long-term climate trends.

Reactions to Krugman’s column reveal much about peoples’ inner craziness. Libertarians, for example, are less afraid the planet will become inhabitable than they are afraid Krugman will line them up against a wall and have them shot. See also some meathead at the American Enterprise Institute — “Is Paul Krugman Inciting Violence?“)

Others think that not to give the tiny minority of scientists who deny global climate change at least as much credibility and debate time (more, actually) than the majority is denying free speech, or the right to dissent, or some such thing.

Of course, the Right is accustomed to being thus catered to by media. As Krugman himself once said, “If Bush said that the world was flat, the headline on the news analysis would read ‘Shape of Earth: Views Differ’.”

The one thing they absolutely will not allow themselves to admit is that climate changes might be the real danger. Not Paul Krugman, not liberals, not even climatologists. If Steven Spielberg were to cast them in a film, they’d be the mayor wanting to keep the beach open (until the shark attack) or the investment lawyer worried about profits and PR (until eaten by a T Rex).

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