Friday, May 30, 2008

Debating against climate dishonesty

With my usual blogging speed, I just finished listening to the NPR debate topic from last year, "Global warming is not a crisis" (aftermath reviewed by Gavin here).

Gavin had the toughest job, I think. Audience members understand that debaters will have certain biases and selectivity with the facts, but they also assume a certain level of honesty they're not going to get from the most prominent denialists. Gavin's role was to inform the audience that the other side isn't honest in its use of studies or facts, and that the lay audience doesn't have the scientific chops to sort through the dishonesty. The audience didn't like to hear that second part, but they need to hear it and they may ultimately absorb it after several hearings. I can say as a darn-well informed layperson that I get lost in some of the scientific arguments, especially the statistical ones, and these people who don't pay nearly as much attention will have to live with that fact too.

I'll add three suggestions: first, Gavin points out in his post that "the number of spurious talking points can seriously overwhelm the ability of others to rebut them." With the advantage of hindsight, that should have been part of the debate message, that the other side will use spurious points that the audience can't decipher on their own and that the pro-science side doesn't have the time to refute in the debate context.

Second, rather than attack the denialist side's credibility in general, the attack on their credibility should be directed specifically at the individuals at the podium for what they have individually done. Crichton and Stott particularly constitute Tim Blair-ish piƱatas for this purpose. That's not a typical scientific approach, but the denialists aren't acting like scientists, and people deserve to know that. Maybe, eventually, they will rein in their claims if they find themselves confronted with them in different contexts.

Finally, I disagree with Gavin's conclusion that debates like this aren't worthwhile. Practice refines debate approaches. I know that means the bad guys also get to practice, but if we believe that truth has a tiny edge in persuasiveness over deception, then practice will ultimately favor the truth.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Short stuff

Yesterday I switched back and forth between watching news of the Phoenix lander arrival on Mars and listening to an NPR program about detainees tortured at Gitmo.

In 1997 I was in Chile when the Pathfinder mission arrived at Mars. I'm not all that given to patriotic expressions, but the widespread fascination that the Chilean news media had with the Mars mission gave me a sense of pride as an American, something my country did that was admired globally. What a strange perspective yesterday, then, seeing the best and the worst of America being expressed.

I feel like focusing on the best instead of the worst. We might know within a week whether the polygonal cracks in Mars' polar surfaces have filled in part with ice, which could only happen if pre-existing ice melted and flowed into the cracks - in other words, proof of liquid water at the Martian surface in geologically recent time periods, and therefore a potential habitat for life.

We need more of the best and an end to the worst.

Counting down to the Mars Science Laboratory liftoff next year....

Friday, May 23, 2008

The nuclear energy dilemma

Thirteen countries in the Middle East have started or revived nuclear energy programs in recent years, reacting to Iran's nuclear energy/potential nuclear weapon program. Iran is just one example of a "peaceful" nuclear program undergoing questionable developments, something that right-wing enthusiasts over nuclear energy completely fail to handle (assuming that serial invasions isn't the best approach). It's also a tough nut for people like me, though, who are skeptical semi-supporters of increased nuclear power.

The question about nuclear energy isn't just whether it's good or bad for the environment, it's also about the potential harm to international security. Not many people have expertise in both areas.*

My sense is that we need to pursue all the low-carbon energy strategies, but how to handle nuclear energy on the international level?

Some ideas:

  • To discourage the spread of control of nuclear technology and nuclear materials, new nuclear plants could be located in countries that already possess plants, with the power exported at internationally-controlled prices.
  • Massively beefed-up IAEA control of nuclear plants should exist in countries acquiring nuclear power for the first time. Maybe every important job and piece of equipment could be staffed and owned by the IAEA using foreign nationals, except crucial safety personnel. The plants should be run by the IAEA, except that the host country has the right to shut down operations for safety reasons.
  • Why should countries newly acquiring nuclear energy have less sovereign ownership than current nuclear operators? They shouldn't - the same rules should apply to nuclear power in countries that have it right now (good luck getting Americans to go along with this).
  • As an alternative to submitting American nuclear power plants to IAEA control, the price Americans and other sovereign controllers of nuclear power should pay in return for new countries losing that sovereign power is that we should accept the nuclear waste from those new countries' plants.
I don't think these ideas would look all that attractive to typical American proponents of nuclear power, even if I have no objection to them.

*Al Gore does have expertise in both fields, and he opposes an expanded role for nuclear power, mainly because of the nuclear waste issue (I don't care much about) and nuclear proliferation issue (does bother me).

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

California voters, please vote no on Prop 98 and yes on 99

The stupidity is back with us again. Feigning anger over the mostly-nonexistent threat of government agencies forcing people to sell their property so the agencies can resell the property to business interests, the property-rights fanatics have again given us an initiative that goes much further and restricts land-use regulation designed to protect the environment.

Proposition 98 specifically defines as a prohibited taking for private use, any regulation "in order to transfer an economic benefit to one or more private persons at the expense of the private owner" (text at bottom of first page). While this is so poorly written that we can hope the courts will gut it, we can't count on that. Any good land-use regulation will provide some economic benefit. Tightening noise restrictions in a mixed industrial/residential area will increase residential property values, for example. Had the proponents written it to say it prohibited regulations with a primary effect or intent of transferring an economic benefit, they would have avoided this problem. I think the failure to write it this way is intentional. I'll also note some incredibly disingenous discussion at the Volokh website that completely ignores this issue.

Other reasons to vote against 98 and for 99 are here. Proposition 99 takes a much more limited approach to dealing with this non-problem; passing 99 with more votes would invalidate 98 and hopefully stop future versions of 98 (which itself is a rehashed version of an initiative that failed in 2006).

Finally, my day job for the last five years involves monitoring land use in Santa Clara County, a 700,000 acre county with 1.6 million people. I don't recall any eminent domain proceedings since I started the job. Where is the problem? I may have missed some proceedings, somewhere, but I'll be even more surprised if they go beyond the standard road-widening issue that would not be affected by Proposition 98. This is just a Trojan Horse scam.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What Obama should say about McCain's climate promises

Obama should continue to tie McCain to Bush, saying something like this:

George Bush, like John McCain today, promised in 2000 to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and to require all power plants to meet clean-air standards in order to reduce carbon dioxide. Two months after he was elected, he broke his promise and fought environmental efforts ever since. On this issue, like so many others, we cannot afford a third Bush-McCain administration.

This puts McCain into a tight spot of dealing with Bush's broken promise. The best he can do is to plaintively say he won't break promises like Bush did, which won't be very convincing to environmental voters and won't exactly energize Republican voters either.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Expanding the blogroll

Ta-Nehisi Coates - politics from an African-American angle.

The G Spot - women's political issues. I've looked for analysis that isn't simplistic application of feminist theory (Duke Lacrosse scandal) or even more simplistic counter-reaction. This is it.

Ezra Klein - good political instincts from this youngster. Usually.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

McCain climate proposals vague about India and China

While McCain's climate proposal seems fairly mainstream, if not as good as Obama's, there's been little discussion of his India and China proposals. Here's the text:

....If we are going to establish meaningful environmental protocols, then they must include the two nations that have the potential to pollute the air faster, and in greater annual volume, than any nation ever in history....At the same time, we will continue in good faith to negotiate with China and other nations to enact the standards and controls that are in the interest of every nation — whatever their stage of economic development....Pressing on blindly with uncontrolled carbon emissions is in no one’s interest, especially China’s. And the rest of the world stands ready to help.

So the question is what standards are in the interest of developing nations that McCain acknowledges have little responsibility for the current buildup of greenhouse gases. The good news is that McCain doesn't expressly take the usual hard line position that India and China have to freeze and cut their emissions "equally" with the developed world, despite having per-capita emissions that are one-tenth to one-third of the US emission level. That argument isn't intended to create better regulation - it's intended to kill any possible deal.

On the other hand, McCain doesn't expressly rule out that position. Nor does he take what I'd consider an equitable position - an equal, per capita emission allocation to nations regulating either annual emissions or total contributions to greenhouse gases. Any position by McCain that developing nations should be restricted to lower per-capita emissions than the US isn't going to do well internationally, but whether he'll fight conservatives he point out growing total emissions from developing countries isn't clear. It's vague.

UPDATE: Having scanned Obama's proposal, it's better in general than McCain but no more specific about India and China.

Monday, May 12, 2008

My NASA space conspiracy theory

No, it's not that the Apollo moon landings were fake - everyone knows that.*

My conspiracy theory is that many or most of the space scientists who say they support NASA's manned space exploration are lying through their teeth. I don't think anyone can adeptly play the game of getting NASA money for an unmanned project you're working on, while simultaneously dissing the stupid and politically powerful manned program. I think the scientists are playing politics.

The moon landings did good science, although that wasn't the main reason for them. Since then, the manned program has been a huge disaster, and Obama to his credit has started pushing away at it. I say leave it to private industry.

Meanwhile, not much has surfaced about the mysterious resignation of the NASA's science chief, although it likely had something to do with political infighting over Mars funding. A great comment here seems to indicate some inside knowledge.

And we're less than two weeks from when Phoenix lands on Mars. Here's hoping it doesn't crater....

*Mom will kill me when she reads that - she wrote software for the Mercury and Gemini missions.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The ethnic repression aspect of the Burma cyclone disaster

The media reports I've seen have made little attempt to explain exactly why Burma's dictators are restricting large numbers of foreign aid workers from entering the country to help with the ongoing disaster. I did volunteer work in eastern Burma in the early 1990s, in an area controlled by the ethnic minority Karen people who rebelled against the dictatorship. The ethnic aspect can help explain how the dictatorship is acting.

The worst-hit area in Burma is the Irrawaddy Delta, which is also has large numbers of the Karen minority. That area had a Karen-led insurrection from the 1940s through the 1960s, with a brief flare-up in the late 1980s. The dictators want no contact between these villagers and the outside world, both for what the villagers could tell the world and for the opportunity given to local people to think they have any rights or expectations.

An additional explanation that I've seen almost nothing about is superstition. There seemed to me to be a fair amount of belief even among educated Burmese that inauspicious events have a semi-supernatural cause. It wouldn't be surprising to see this in Burma about Cyclone Nargis; we saw the same nonsense here in the States over Katrina. A look at the map makes Burma seem like a conscious target of the cyclone, just as the dictatorship is holding a sham referendum to legitimize its rule. I'd expect them to minimize the cyclone's importance, and above all to do nothing to delay the referendum on the basis that it is "inauspicious."

Brutal, superstitious, and ignorant is no way to run a country. Something we've found out recently here at home.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Alaska legislature funding of climate skeptics only is a potential First Amendment violation

Jeff in Alaska alerted me to this article in the Anchorage Daily News, with a great lede:

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon -- researchers just have to fill in the science part.

A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an "academic based" conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming. Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears' survival.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects scientific expression as well as political expression. One of the fundamental rules of free expression is that the government cannot discriminate based on viewpoint. It can't say that science grants are only available to scientists registered as Republicans, for example.

Similarly, for the Alaskan government to offer funding only to those who disagree with the scientific viewpoint that human-caused warming is real, seems to be a straightforward viewpoint discrimination case, one made even worse by the political implications of climate science. If the funding goes through (unclear whether the governor will strike it) and a pro-consensus scientist denied a share of it, that person would have a great case, I think.

I can think of an unusual legal defense strategy though. It's perfectly legal to discriminate against crackpot theories, like the idea that evolution isn't real or that people aren't causing warming, because those theories lack scientific validity and the discrimination doesn't pick one scientific view over another. Alaska could make the converse argument - it isn't discriminating against some scientific viewpoints about climate but all scientific viewpoints, and a "nonsense only" funding screen is acceptable. The state might hesitate to make this argument, though.

I plan to send this post along to climate law and First Amendment bloggers to see what they think.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What "Expelled" tells us about the whole science-framing thing

I think the moronic creationist pseudo-documentary, Expelled, tells us the anti-science framing crowd can be wrong even when they're right.

The science framers, mostly Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet, want to spin the discussion of science (in a good way, supposedly) to appeal the most to the target audience. The anti-framers, people like PZ Myers and Greg Laden, say science shouldn't be spun, a cacophony of voices is just fine, and strident opposition to stupidity is effective. The debate plays out repeatedly at the websites.

As of today, Expelled has made $6.6 million, and will certainly be the fifth highest-grossing political documentary in history. The pro-framers have said the anti-framers should shut up about the movie, and argued that constantly talking about it has made it successful. The anti-framers claim the movie isn't successful.

The anti-framers are wrong on two counts. First, the movie's clearly successful by any non-ridiculous standards. Second, one of the framing concepts is that people will not accept any fact that contradicts their mental model of the world, and the anti-framers' refusal to acknowledge the movie's commercial success is itself a proof of this framing concept.

Despite all this, I throw in with the anti-framers in general. I think science is or at least should be more like a cacophony of opinions being tested out, and science communication should reflect that. And strident opposition to creationist nonsense can be refreshing. But the anti-framers need to acknowledge the evidence wherever it goes, and not acknowledging it here is ridiculous.

One tangential point I haven't seen raised: when to see Expelled. I don't think there's much point in seeing it, but if people do want to, they shouldn't go until after it's been in the theater where they're thinking of going for over two weeks. Expelled's producers get a much bigger cut of ticket revenues in the first two weeks, so waiting reduces the amount they take in.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Climate bet proposal for Bill Gray in the Rocky Mountain Chronicle

Nice writeup of the bet status and the purpose of climate betting here. The Chronicle is the weekly newspaper in Bill Gray's hometown, Fort Collins.

And just in time to screw up a ten-year bet designed to test the difference between anthropic warming and natural variability is a prediction issued today that a naturally variable cooling cycle will be so strong in the next ten years that it will temporarily mask the anthropic warming signal. Unlike Gray's assertion, this is a scientifically-based prediction, but it's just a single one. I'd like to see what the rest of the scientific community thinks of it.

UPDATES: When I talked to the reporter, he referred to the bet offer as an "old school" way of settling differences. I liked that description, and was sorry it didn't get into the article.

As to my increased respect for skeptics who put their money where their mouths are, that respect is for them as persons. It doesn't make their theories any better.

I should clarify that despite this new prediction of masked temps, I'm not backing off from the bet terms with Gray. I will modify future bet offers if this prediction solidifies into the consensus position, but backing out of the current negotiation wouldn't be old school.