Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pachauri conflict of interest charge pretty murky at this point

The forces of inaction on climate change are gunning for the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, to resign.  I doubt it has much anything to do with him and everything to do with pretending the IPCC is a mess and the science is discredited.  The next logical step would be to demand a complete reworking of the process of compiling Assessment Reports and a several-year delay added to the schedule for the next Report. 

The effort to try and take him down has little to do with whether he's done a good job, which in reality is a bit of an open question.  I actually think his aggressive reaction to criticism has been mistaken, resulting in a climbdown on the-minor-but-embarrassing mistake over the rate of Himalayan glacier melt (and some more dodgy citation is alleged for the IPCC Working Group II report on impacts here, which would also be embarrassing if true). As for Pachauri's main job of running the IPCC, however, I have no idea if it's run well or not.

Instead of focusing on something real, the inactivists first blamed him for the partial mistake about Himalayan glaciers and demanded he resign, which is just stupid.  Slightly more realistic is pointing to his paid positions with some business and research institute organizations, and to contracts between those organizations and a nonprofit energy institute (TERI) that Pachauri runs, saying that constituted a conflict of interest.  Pachauri responds that all money goes to his non-profit and not to him (he does get paid by TERI, however).

There's a lot of heat but little light.  Roger Pielke Jr. waves some UN and WMO conflict policies for employees (Pachauri isn't an employee, he's unpaid) and says "Since we do not have details on Dr. Pachauri's activities or compensation from these various organizations and businesses, it is impossible to tell what, if any, conflicts actually may exist."  Roger tried again later, arguing "IPCC Chairman Pachauri was making public comments on a dispute involving factual claims by the IPCC at the same time that he was negotiating for funding to his home institution justified by those very same claims."

Worth mentioning that the dispute, responding to criticism by the Indian government of the IPCC, only partially concerned the rate of Himalayan glacier melt.  Also that the funding grant for TERI (no indication given that Pachauri was involved in negotiation, although he did make a favorable statement after it was given) was not principally about the mistaken claim that glaciers would melt by 2035.  And that no one disputes that the reason for the grant - responding to melting Himalayan glaciers - is still valid despite the false 2035 claim.  So Roger's overstating things, but what else is new.

This isn't nothing, though.  I would say first, Pachauri would have a conflict of interest at the various boards he serves on if he doesn't recuse himself from decisions between that board and his nonprofit.  I haven't seen this alleged, though, and even if it were, the conflict is at the board level and not at the IPCC.

At the IPCC, there's little question that its work can affect the future of the energy research institute that pays Pachauri a salary.  This is the real issue that Roger seems to stumble around.  The problem is that virtually every high level player in the IPCC will have a similar issue of having fingers in multiple pots that could be affected by their volunteer work at the IPCC.  That problem can't be totally fixed for everyone, but it should be fixable at the highest level.  The IPCC Chair and maybe a few other top officials should be generously-paid executive officers, and that should be their exclusive job, with the same conflict of interest rules that apply to top UN officials.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reviewing The Greatest Show on Earth: read The Ancestor's Tale instead

I'm a big fan of Richard Dawkins' science writing (haven't been interested in his atheism stuff). His latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, unfortunately doesn't appeal that much to me, and I can only think of a limited audience who should read it. Science and evolution afficianados should instead read The Ancestor's Tale or any other Dawkins book, instead.

I guess he felt he hadn't comprehensively addressed the evidence for evolution.  You can't - Darwin had compiled too much evidence to do the comprehensive job he had planned, and it's increased exponentially ever since.  If you're trying to provide a tool useful for arguments with creationists, though, I wouldn't write a narrative book at all - I'd create a manual, something that allows easy referencing and searching for various arguments, maybe based on Panda's Thumb or the countless other resources out there.  Dawkins kept recommending Jerry Coyne's book, Why Evolution Is True, and maybe that's a better book for the evolution champions.

The book would be an excellent read for someone who actually takes creationism seriously, but I doubt they'll read it (or this blog post).  It might also be good for Dawkins fans who've read everything else from him and want something new - he's said his next book will be a children's book on myths, so the good science will be a while before we see it again.  Everyone else should find more interesting content in Ancestor's Tale.

UPDATE:  maybe worth adding that Greatest Show has received pretty good reviews, so most people disagree with me.

Bonus blogging:  why in heck did John Kerry have to hire a conservative that was spreading, in a stupid or deceptive fashion, extensive pro-torture propaganda?  If he wanted to reach out with an affirmative action hire of a conservative, there are plenty out there still who don't believe in torture.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Commenting fixed, mostly, I hope

Haloscan/Echo is out, Blogger comments are in.  Please let me know if you're trying to retrieve old comments.  Still can't figure out how to get posts to show the number of comments so people can figure out if there are any new ones, but I'll keep trying.

Apologies from the management:

Climate betting baseline set

The always-pleasant David Evans emailed me a little while back, reminding me that we now have the baseline measurement sent for our bet of $6,000 - $9,000 that temps will increase at reasonably rapid rate. The bet we made in 2007 was for the increase above the five-year GISS average for 2007, which wasn't established until the end of 2009. It's .55C above the 1951-1980 baseline, and the five years include the three highest temps in the 130-year GISS record. Nothing especially weird happened in those years - fairly typical/slightly warm from my perspective, and just what you'd expect prior to a slowdown in warming from David's perspective.

For those who haven't made it their business to memorize the bet details, they're here:
We have three bet periods -10, 15, and 20 years - and two bets for each period - an even-odds bet and a 2:1 bet in David's favor. The even-odds bet centers around a temperature increase rate of 0.15C/decade with a 0.02 void margin on either side (bet voids if temps increase between .13 and .17C/decade). The 2:1 bet centers on 0.1C/decade with a .01 void margin. Even-odds bets are for $1,000 each, and the 2:1 bets increase over time, with me betting $1,000, $2,000 and $3,000, and David betting half that. My exposure is $9,000; his is $6,000.
Temps from 2010 through 2014 won't directly affect who wins, although they'll give an increasingly good idea of who's likely to win (note though that because 2005 was the GISS record and included in the 2007 five-year average, the 2008 average will only be higher if 2010 is a new record). With the baseline established, our two bets each for 2017, 2022, and 2027 averages are centered at .6C and .7C above the 1951-1980 period for 2017; at .65C and .775C for 2022; lastly at .75C and .85C for 2027.

The other (and original) significant-money bet was between James Annan and two Russian cosmologists, where the Russians predict cooling. I thought I'd look at how it's going - a slightly different data set, 6-year average, baseline set at 1998-2003 and compared to 2012-2017. I'll just be lazy and compare to the 5-year GISS averages in the links above. 1998-2002 is .45C above baseline, and latest five-year average, 2005-2009, is .55C. For the Russians to win, they need temps to start declining soon, and fairly dramatically. James can start making plans for his $10,000, I think.

And there's William "Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride" Connolley who hasn't been able to arrange any big bets on warming. Lots of small ones though, including one against me for $10 that he won but I think he's forgotten about, and I'm not going to remind him.

I've had a couple of nibbles for bets, but nothing's worked out - I could probably try a little harder to make them work, and might try and revive some prospects.

Not much else on climate betting that I've heard. Nate at wrote in favor of climate prediction market, and argued it's unlikely to be manipulated by people placing bad bets in order to support their political arguments. I agree, on the basis that it wouldn't take too much money against us to tap out me, William, and the few others who are out there taunting denialists to put their money where their mouths are, but no one's done it. Too bad.

UPDATE:  Crandles points out in the comments that he won $1300 betting on 2009 being one of the five warmest years at Intrade.  Some other interesting bet options there, maybe.....

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avatar story line is cliched but accurate (mostly)

The basic story in Avatar is that a technologically-advanced civilization intrudes upon another with less technology, and bad things happen to the latter group. Rightwingers see the obvious parallels to Native Americans, and this makes them oh so angry.

One can critique the film's plot as not being especially deep, but that doesn't make it wrong. If it's at all helpful to the wingers, this kind of thing happened and is happening all the time. Instead of white Europeans and Native Americans, I saw a similar process in Burma between the ethnic Burmese military junta and the minority/hill tribe Karen people where the junta wanted to run a natural gas pipeline to Thailand, (with French and American oil company help). Jared Diamond's book Collapse discussed how gun-wielding Maori decimated the hunters of Chatham Island.*

I'll make these critiques of the Avatar story line in terms of accurately depicting our world:

  • The natives remained completely united. That never happens. The colonizer always finds allies among the natives, exploiting existing rivalries and tensions.

  • The natives don't want anything the moderns have. That's not true, although they might be better off without much of it - alcohol, opium, shiny beads, guns, and saggy pants.

  • The natives are completely good. Also untrue - instead of bad guys versus good guys, the real world is more like bad guys versus less-bad guys. The distant or maybe not-so-distant ancestors of the natives almost always did what's being done to them, taking the land from someone who was there first. I doubt there's any human society that didn't do bad things on a regular basis to themselves or their neighbors.

None of the above excuses the worse sins of the invaders, of course.

We could say these aren't flaws in Avatar because the natives aren't human, but then it's also not much of an allegory for this world.

*Wiki does claim the Chatham Islanders were nonviolent, which strikes me as complete bull.

A negotiated solution will eliminate any need for violence in Avatar sequels (spoilers)

(Avatar plot spoilers below)

Readers will be relieved to learn that the violent action sequences in Avatar do not need to be repeated in the two sequels that Cameron's been talking about.

It seems pretty obvious that as Cameron plans it, the humans will still want the unobtainium, and won't be caught by surprise as was the case this time with a small human expeditionary force facing the globally-united Na'vi. So the sequel will be a massive human attack on Pandora - call it, say, The Humans Strike Back. It will end somewhat inconclusively, until the third movie where the Na'vi leave their world, get into an outer space battle, unexpectedly convert one of the bad guys to their side and then win. Call that one the Return of the Na'vi.

That sequence is all unnecessary. The key issue is that Hometree, which formerly blocked human access to the largest amount of unobtainium in hundreds of miles, is now gone. Obviously it would be better to have been saved - riches of Pandora are at the surface and all that -but I've learned in my environmental career that once you've lost, you move on.

So rather than fight each other, I can provide a completely different plot for the two sequels. In the first sequel, we have a Star Trek Next Generation-style plot, where everyone sits around a table and conducts dramatic negotiations that if they break down, could lead to violence. Fortunately, Pi'kart of the Na'vi realizes that they can let the humans mine the unobtainium where Hometree used to be, without further harm to the moon's environment. They also allow mining at other already-disturbed sites, and they offer cooperation on learning about the planet's biological wealth. Everybody wins!!

In the last movie, the Na'vi return to their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We've already seen the hunting side, so this movie should focus on gathering. I suggest two-and-a-half hours of watching the Na'vi dig out blueish tubers from the ground. The climax would be a fifteen-minute struggle to pull out an especially-tough tuber, with a team effort victoriously resulting in a slow-mo explosion of dirt as the tuber is finally wrenched out.

No need for Cameron or the fans to thank me for the plot fixes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

News results for Guantanamo suicides and the IPCC glacier mistake

There's some extremely disturbing evidence that the three simultaneous "suicides" at Guantanamo actually died during a torture session and were subject to an ongoing coverup. Google News returns 367 hits for this subject. Nothing in the New York Times; Washington Post carried the AP news report.

A single paragraph in the 3,000 page International Panel on Climate Change report has been shown to be wrong, correctly stating that the Himalayan glaciers are melting but incorrectly stating that they will be gone by 2035. This claim was never highlighted or given much importance by the IPCC. Google News returns 1,789 hits on this mistake. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about the comparison of news report numbers.

Regarding the IPCC mistake, Tim Lambert, John Nielsen-Gannon, and William Connolley have written the most interesting stuff. I think Tim shows this was an unusual mistake that was almost caught in the draft review process - I find that somewhat reassuring as just a screwup instead of an accepted procedure. From William's comments though, the section of the IPCC dealing with impacts needs to improve its game.

My unsupported speculation is that the mistake is tied into some internal, office-politics conflict among Indian climate scientists, and that has something to do with the sloppy work in this particular instance.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Democrats are blowing it, and they need to learn from Bush

I promise to let go of this soon, but I can't handle the Democratic foolishness.

While the Republicans had terrible policies with horrible results that earned them their current, out-of-power position, they were good at getting those policies enacted. So how did the Bush Administration react when the entire national electorate kicked Republican butts out? They offered one sacrifice - Rumsfeld - and then doubled down on their policies with the surge in 2007. And while the surge was a worse policy choice than initiating a drawdown as Bush agreed to in 2008, it was better than the status quo and somewhat improved Republican electoral outcomes in 2008.

Now we have one Democratic state rejecting one Democratic candidate who ran a lousy campaign, where the only clear fact is that the electorate supports the in-state version of health care that's planned nationally, and the Ds can't decide what to do.

The policy choices seem to me to be either pass the Senate bill unchanged combined with a possibility of improvements in separate legislation, or alternatively to work for a slight possibility of a few piecemeal reforms instead. How anyone can hesitate in light of those choices is beyond me.

The politics seem clear too - the Democrats need this achievement to have something to run on in November.

I'm not the political expert - maybe I'm missing something. But the Obama Administration, the Democratic party leadership, and any Democratic congressional member who doesn't push for it, all seem to me to be screwing it up.

There's some quote about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory that Lincoln might have said (I couldn't confirm). I think the Democrats are half way to doing it now. I still hope and think they can fix it.

What to learn from Edwards' idiocy

So John Edwards finally admitted paternity of his mistress' child, after previously saying the affair ended too soon for him to be the father. I assume he lied about paternity because he was still lying to his wife about the length of the affair. The Edwards are now separated.

I could care less about him, but the story's relevant to our political discourse and our role of trying to identify and support the best possible candidates. Ezra Klein says gossipy campaign books like Game Change are useless because the incentives are to suck up to winning candidates and kick the losers - standard Village journalism practice.

Understood, but when I read the chapter on Edwards, I felt like even more of a fool for being a supporter than I had previously. On the other hand, the chapter seems likely to be mostly correct, and quite a contrast to the political reporting during the campaign. All you heard during the campaign was how emotionally dependent John was on Elizabeth, and worries that her potential death from cancer might leave him emotionally dysfunctional in office. I'm not sure what should have tipped me off during the campaign and kept me from being a supporter, aside from the fact that establishment Democrats didn't like him (but I didn't trust them), and not-very-concrete arguments that he was superficial.

The book is useful in telling us how useless the campaign reporting was. What to do about that information isn't clear, though.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

So much for the left-wing strategy of waiting for better bills on climate and health

(IMPORTANT UPDATE: the obvious strategy some bloggers are announcing - call up your Representative, if the Rep is Democratic, and tell him or her to pass the Senate health care bill as is.)

With Democrats now having lost their 60th seat in the Senate, we can assess how likely it is that left-wing hopes will come true in 2010 for better bills on climate change and health care. The political left isn't strong enough to be solely responsible for the slow work on legislation, but they played their role.

The right wing view is that the electoral defeats for Democrats are a repudiation of the Democratic platform. The real world view is that the Democratic platform hasn't been tried, and the electorate is repudiating inaction.

Democrats can complete the repeat of 1994 by not passing health care, or they make use of their more limited options they have now, like the House passing the Senate bill without alteration, and moving forward. Similarly, there are a few Republican Senators who don't want to be on the wrong side of history regarding climate change, so there's still a chance there, but on their terms.

Anyone on the left who thinks the 2010 elections will allow for better legislation in 2011 needs to have their head examined. The only semi-logical reason for opposing existing climate and health care legislation is to believe they make things worse than the status quo. It's a completely wrong belief, but that's how far you'd have to go to make any sense out of the opposition from the left.

Finally, for any half-way significant bloggers who wanted the Democrat to win the seat and who felt like getting in recriminations and negative public perceptions in the hours and days before the election finished: you're part of the problem. You should fight for victory when it's possible rather than exude a sense of defeat. Now, on the other hand, is the time for recriminations.

UPDATE: what I should've mentioned is that the moderate-to-conservative Dems are the most at fault, and they're the ones who will lose their seats if the public judges the Democrats to be failures. From their incorrect perspective, there's a risk if Congress passes something too strong, but I think there's even more of a risk if Congress does nothing. They're being idiots.

Racial bias on Haiti from the right and the left

Rush Limbaugh should be getting more grief over this comment telling people not to help Hait than anything else he's said:
There are people who have been trying to save Haiti, just as we're trying to save Africa. You just can't keep throwing money at it cause the dictatorships there just take it all.

Then there's Pat Robertson, who thinks a pact with Satan is how Haitian slaves overthrew French slave owners. Anne Laurie at Balloon Juice nails it:
Forget the religious disagreement—the “Curse of the Revolution” fantasy has been passed down from bigot to bigot for two hundred years and counting because it’s simply impossible for them to believe that a bunch of African savages and half-breeds could win an actual war against the majesty, however tattered, of the extremely white French nobility.
Only Satan can explain how blacks can win a war against whites, apparently. And btw, God supports Christian slaveowners when non-Christian slaves fight for freedom.

These blatant examples of bias aren't the end of the story. I should start by repeating what I've said before that racial bias is so widespread in society/the planet, that saying X statement is prejudiced doesn't mean the maker of X statement is any more biased than anyone else, just that the maker ought to consider the implications.

Anyway, here is the "We didn't break it, but we might own it" Haiti post coming from Talking Points Memo:
As of today, for all practical purposes, Haiti is an American Protectorate. Its own government, to the extent it ever functioned, has now collapsed....Other states and international institutions will contribute aid and resources. Perhaps the UN will expand its current mission in the nation, and assume formal responsibility. But the only nation capable of keeping Haiti from absolute collapse is the United States. Irrespective of the bodies through which we choose to work, the responsibility is ultimately ours.
How this response unfolds, how we structure our responsibilities, whether we choose to assume them alone or through international institutions, what sort of future we design for Haiti - these are vital questions. Ultimately, they are also political questions that will be decided by political actors. And the answers they provide will shape and constrain a wide array of seemingly unrelated policies.
(Emphasis added.)

Haiti is not Iraq - it had and it continues to have an elected government, and it's up to Haitians to design their future. We have a responsibility as fellow human beings to help, but we're not in charge.

I recognize that the government, fragile even before the quake and even more so now, can't provide the normal level of direction. But thinking we can or even should control things is the wrong approach.

More broadly, the sense that "these people weren't running things and need us to run it for them" that I get from the argument has some disturbing implications. I'm sure they're unintentional, but they need to be examined.

Bonus unrelated blogging: Ed Yong might be my favorite general science blogger for combining quality and quantity (with libertarian/conservative/atheist science blogger Razib Khan a close second). Yong's piece on metabolic rates of social insect colonies as superorganisms is a great example of his stuff. I'd known the general idea that bigger animals have slower metabolism, which I ascribed to surface to volume ratios. I can throw out that idea now - it must have something to do with ecological efficiency, and not just simple physiology. That's pretty interesting.

Monday, January 18, 2010

One image showing why short time periods give rotten conclusions on climate

The above image, copystolen from, shows why the denialist technique of cherry-picking short time periods to find a cooling trend is so screwed up. The red line connects measurements by satellite, adjusted by the UAH, for the lower troposphere. The blue line uses that data to construct a trend line from 2001 to 2009, and voila, gives us a downward, cooling trend that skeptics latch onto. Same data except adding a single year, so it's from 2000 to 2009, gives the warming-trending green line.

Too short a timeline give noisy results. Too long a timeline, say from 55 million years ago to today will show a cooling trend, but miss the fact what's happening in the last century. Finding something at a realistic time frame is what counts, and cherry picking short timelines whose results change in a single year isn't a realistic frame.

UPDATE: Tamino provides a sophisticated version of the same argument here.

Bonus blogging: This statement, "“tundra as we imagine it today will largely be gone throughout the Arctic. It may take longer than 50 or even 100 years, but the inevitable direction is toward boreal forest or something like it,” strikes me as unlikely (I was proud of myself for recognizing the picture of tundra in the middle of the post is from Denali Park, though). Much of the tundra is many hundreds of miles north of boreal forest, or up at elevation, or both. It's not going away.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Easy-but-not-cheap 72-hour emergency kits for home, with purchase links

It's hardly responsive to the Haiti quake, but I've been meaning to write about the earthquake/emergency kits I put together for Christmas presents. At least it's a way to lessen the burden on emergency services should something similar happen here.

There are nine members of my wife's family in the Bay Area, and when I found out no one had the 72-hour emergency kits we're supposed to have, I put them together as presents (in-laws loved the kits, too). My emphases were making them easy for me to put together, easy for people with no camping experience to use, and ones that would last as many years as possible without needing replacement or maintenance. In return I was willing to pay more, be more bulky than the minimum possible, and have limited control over food selection.

72-Hour Home kits:
  • Water in plastic jugs, 3 gallons/person
  • Iodine water-purification pills in case water goes bad (after 6 months, assume it's bad), in case it's leaked away, or in case you need more water (UPDATE: chlorine tabs have been suggested as lasting longer in storage than iodine)
  • Mountain House 72-Hour Emergency Meal Kit, 1 per person
  • Mountain Oven Flameless Heating Kit: each kit can be used 5 times and can prepare 2 meals at a time. So 2 kits per two people in a household, but also 2 kits in a single-person household.
  • Plastic silverware
  • Emergency phone numbers/contact list
The above is the absolute minimum. Meals can be eaten in their pouches, so no dishes are needed. Flameless heating kits eliminate the need for cooking stoves (water has to be purified, though). Emergency meals also can be eaten with cold (purified) water although they taste bad. The food and flameless kits should be good for at least 3 or 4 years, and probably more than twice that long.

Your kit should be stored outside your home in case you can't get inside. So in your yard, your car, or somewhere else. The only maintenance this requires is to simply look every six months to see if the water's leaked through the seams of the plastic jugs - it happens fairly often.

Additional useful items:
  • Cheap flashlight/headlamp
  • Spare batteries in clear plastic bag so you can see if they've become corroded over time
  • Plastic tarp and cord as a rain shelter
  • Swiss Army knife
  • Emergency shelter, 1 per 2 people
  • Cheap or expensive first aid kit (I went with cheap kits from the local drugstore)
  • Cheap rain gear, spare shoes and clothes
Don't let the extras delay you from putting together the minimum.

I also made better-than-nothing emergency kits for everyone's car, in case you're stuck on the road:

Car kits:
  • Half-liter water bottle (enough to keep you hydrated for a few hours until you can find a water source. Keep more than one if you have kids.)
  • Iodine (can disinfect murky water from ditches, and you might need to) (or chlorine tabs)
  • Emergency shelter
  • Small amount of long-lasting food (I found tins of honey-roasted peanuts that were good for four years)
  • Cheap rain poncho (I didn't include this, but should have)
  • Emergency contact list
  • Shoes you can walk many miles in, if that's not what you normally wear
  • Cheap, tiny flashlight
You can do much better than this car kit, but it's something in case destroyed roads/bridges keep you from getting home for 12-24 hours.

Additional tricks for both kits: put the contact lists in their own ziplock plastic bags to reduce the chance that they'll mold/get wet over the years. I've also found that the metal caps on the iodine bottles tend to rust over a few years, so I bagged them in their own ziplock bags, and poured a little table salt in the bags to absorb humidity.

Hopefully this is all unnecessary.

Comments/suggestions welcome, as always.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Credible scientists don't necessarily mean credible science

There seems to be increasing connections between climate denialism and evolution denialism, with the creationist Discovery Institute increasingly interested in denying anthropogenic warming.

At my most cynical, I think this is a bank shot by the more strategic climate denialists who are worried about the Christian envangelical environmental movement getting out of hand, and see this as a way to slow it down. Only slightly less cynically, it's the creationists trying to glom on to a slightly less discredited form of science denialism than their own dreck, and using climate denialism as a gateway drug to the harder stuff.

I just finished watching Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, the Nova documentary about the lawsuit that blocked using public schools to teach intelligent design as a way to introduce creationism in the classroom. It's a good documentary although it could've gone faster (which is why Netflix is great - I watched most of it at 1.4x speed, and some of it at 2x speed).

The documentary is a useful reminder to realists and a caution to climate skeptics, in that it shows a tiny handful of real scientists, professors even in the relevant fields, who deny evolution. If you're a climate skeptic that just hates it whenever we compare your views to creationism, this is a problem. The view of a few credible scientists who oppose the mainstream view on evolution either negates the existence of a consensus, or alternatively the climate skeptics have to acknowledge having a few aging climate researchers on their side isn't sufficient proof to deny the climate consensus.

I think the most reasonable view is that a small number credible scientists can go off the deep end and believe something unreasonable even in their own field. That's what happened with evolution and happened in the climate field.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Attempts to redeem Strom Thurmond not working well

The better conservatives and better conservative commenters are saying that Senator Reid's offhand, cringe-inducing comment about "Negro dialect" isn't equivalent to Trent Lott saying we would be better off if segregationist Strom Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election.

Where some of them go off the rails though is in trying to salvage anything from Strom Thurmond's racist legacy. We hear from The American Spectator:
Although Thurmond was born and raised in the segregated south, he eventually renounced his past. In 1970, he became the first Southern senator to hire a black staffer and he was the first to recommend a black man to be a federal judge. He then sent his daughter to a heavily integrated public school.
The "first Southern senator to hire a black staffer" is all over the wingnutosphere; many of them are not content with this and expand it to first senator from anywhere to hire an African-American staffer.

So how do all these claims play out in the real world? Thurmond never renounced his past, so that's wrong. As for the rest, I got into a discussion at TigerHawk (I hope I was polite, some folks seem a tad offended). I'll save time and recopy it here:

1. Tigerhawk posted something interesting recently about an apology deficit as a failure to take responsibility. Applies in spades to Thurmond. A few affirmative action hires, if they even occurred, hardly makes up for his past.

2. We're agreed the quote about first Southern Senator with black staff is likely wrong. (The South had black senators in the Reconstruction period, and they likely had black staff.)

3. Your NY Times verification on the first staff hire isn't a NY Times report, it's a Maureen Dowd Op-Ed, which get little to no fact-checking and therefore does little to help you. If you're happy to have Thurmond on your side, I suggest you take Dowd as well. She's useless.

4. Your Time and CNN sources on first staff hire are somewhat better, but they're tossed-off half-sentences, not central to the reports so they provide not too much confidence in their accuracy.

5. Time and CNN confirm that American Spectator was wrong about the date of the hire - it was 1971.

6. You have not provided outside support for any of Spectator's other claims.

7. The CNN transcript led me to Thurmond's biographer and her book, "Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change." She discusses racial issues extensively. On page 413 she describes his hiring of Tom Moss, in what looks like an attempt to beat out Fritz Holling from hiring a black aide first. Nowhere that I found did she describe this as the first by a post-Reconstruction Southern Senator.

8. Given South Carolina's racial history, I think it's quite likely that Moss was the first black hire for a post-Reconstruction Senator from that state. That's all that's been established on that issue.

9. Lots of misinformation in the Right blogosphere that Thurmond was the first Senator from anywhere to hire a black aide. (Some misinformation in the mainstream as well.)

10. The biography says on page 486 that Thurmond helped a black man chosen by, wait for it, Jimmy Carter, become the first black federal judge in South Carolina. Again, one state and not the entire South.

11. Looks like Judge James Lopez Watson (appointed by Pres. Johnson) precedes Carter's selection as the first judge to head a federal court in the South:

No evidence of Thurmond's involvement. There may be other judges too. There's a black judge appointed by Carter in Alabama, but I'm not sure if it's earlier or later.

12. I just did a quick check on the integrated public school claim, didn't come up with much info.

I could check on putting his daugher in integrated schools, but I think I've wasted enough time on this relic. It's very good that he's out of the Senate.
UPDATE: I overlooked a good link by my debating opponent that seems to establish the school claim, so they got one thing right.

I'll just add again that even more common than the unsuccessful Thurmond redemption claims is the assertion that William F. Buckley renounced racism in the mid-1960s. I've looked all over for this mid-1960s quote, and I can't find it. There's a statement of his in 2004 that "
I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong." He's clearly distorting his overtly racist statements in the 1950s. He may be getting credit 40 years earlier than he deserves.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Europa science conspiracy is no climate science conspiracy

It seems doubtful that a scientific conspiracy to oppress alternative scientific viewpoints is even possible at the level denialists claim, a level so successful that "Since 2007, no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion" against human-caused warming.

There are some of my fellow space nuts who think they've proven that it's at least possible for a massive scientific conspiracy to exist, and they point to research about Jupiter's moon Europa as their example. Astronomer Richard Greenberg, member the Galileo space probe team, alleges repression of the view of his team that Europa has a thin ice sheet and not a thick one that separates its oceans from the surface. He's got a book out that I've read, Unmasking Europa, that makes exactly this case.

At first read, it gives some support to an argument that parallels denialists, saying
It seems bizarre that political clout would be used to promote a scientifically weak position...[but] the situation is both familiar and disturbing....Deviation from [the scientific "party line"] is risky business....less secure [researchers] may feel pressure to toe the party line or move on to other fields.

(page 7).

Things go downhill from this point on though, if you're trying to use Europa as a metaphor for the alleged climate conspiracy. It starts with Greenberg's next paragraph:
The political aspects of the story of Europan science play out largely within the scientific community. In this way they are different from the even more ominous attempts at political control of science from the outside, such as the recent efforts to discredit the scientific consensus on climate change.

(emphasis added).

Yup, Greenberg might agree that there's a conspiracy related to climate science, except that it's about powerful interests trying to obscure the understanding that we are changing the climate.

On a broader level, Greenberg and other thin-ice supporters think science can work through the peer-review process, saying "even the hard-line isolated ocean are starting to hedge their bets" (page 34). He's doing exactly what the reality-based faction are suggesting to climate skeptics, that they prove their case in and through the scientific process.

Greenberg also argues that political power in Europa research was highly centralized in a small team that controlled access to Galileo imagery (current NASA missions allow easier and quicker access to data), and one government agency, NASA, indirectly controls their future careers. Climate change involves thousands of scientists in a broad range of fields - climatology, physics, oceanography, geology - where a small shadowy cabal can't run everything.

Another major distinction between Europa and climate is that Greenberg isn't arguing that his view has been completely excluded from the scientific process. He has even been included on the design team for the next mission to the Jupiter system that will definitively resolve the issue, although not until 2026.

So denialists will have to look elsewhere to show that it's even possible to find an example of a scientific conspiracy at the level they're describing.

Setting this all aside, Greenberg's book is well-written, persuasive, and has gorgeous photographs. He's also quite willing to name names about who's unfairly working against his viewpoint.

I have no idea who's right, and my opinion would be worthless anyway. Reading the wiki article on Europa is a good balance to Greenberg's point of view (the article acknowledges the lack of consensus, of course). I can say, however, that Greenberg's contrarian inclinations are obvious. For example, he claims it's good that the probe's main communication antenna failed, because this kept the researchers from being overwhelmed with data and could concentrate on a small set of images instead. That is simply ridiculous. Being a contrarian isn't ridiculous -they can sometimes make the big leaps - but it's something to keep in mind.

Greenberg and his book will either be considered a visionary or a footnote when the next probe finally gets to Europa. It'll be interesting to find out which.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Does racial familiarity breed contempt or understanding?

Matt Yglesias points
to a somewhat optimistic result from an unintentional experiment in India that brought Hindus and Muslims in close contact in a public housing complex: majority Hindus improved their opinion of Muslims, while minority Muslims had no change of opinion for better or worse of Hindus. One and a half cheers for incremental progress! Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip

Less cheeringly, a knowledgeable commenter sez casual contact usually reinforces prejudice, and only intense contact such as military desegregation really breaks it down. This fits my anecdotal understanding of why New Orleans was so racist when I lived there for several weeks in the early 1990s - working class/unemployed whites had casual contact with black population living in the hellhole public housing complexes scattered everywhere. They couldn't easily avoid each other, unlike Washington DC for the same period.

Still, there seems to be a positive long term trend that casual contact studies might be missing. I left this comment:

I also think the theory, that casual contact increases prejudice, conflicts with the tendency of racial conflicts to eventually resolve over long periods of time of several generations or more. Sometimes they’re resolved through genocide or racial expulsion, but in the modern period it seems like relaxation and eventual merger of the two particular races/ethnicities is more likely.

Maybe the way to make sense of this is that casual contact creates occasional “pockets” of intense interaction, where (for example) intermarriages and business relationships have effects similar to the military effects you describe – maybe not so much on the married couple/business partners who likely are less prejudiced, but in their immediate social circle.

And maybe short-term studies of casual contact miss some of these effects that happen rarely but lead to decreased prejudice.

Just guessing here….

Bonus Yglesias blogging wherein I quote myself: Matt thinks it's no big deal that potential Al Qaeda affiliates tried to contact Latin American drug dealers, because they failed. I think this is wrong, and part of the broader framework of the left wrongly thinking our porous borders are no big deal for national security. I babbled:

I’m going to somewhat disagree with Matt on this. If the African guys truly were Al Qaeda, then the incident shows an attempt, an attempt, by Al Qaeda to link to drug trafficking networks. That’s worrying because drug traffickers and immigrant smugglers have fairly effective systems of getting through US borders. It isn’t something to dismiss as unimportant.

Unfortunately, wingnuts on the right have grossly distorted and exaggerated it to serve their own loony interests on Cuba and Venezuela. It’s really a problem that one of our two political parties has no interest in actual, effective policy.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Cato and Pat Michaels bouncing on the edge of defamation

If you consider climatologist Michael Mann to be a private figure rather than a public one, Cato and Pat Michaels have probably violated defamation law by misattributing a quote to Mann which they consider an indication of Mann's unfitness to conduct science. I disagree with Joe at the link in calling it a lie - it appears to be an honest mistake, if also an indicator of Pat Michaels' work quality. The quote, a suggestion to exclude two poor-quality denialist papers from the IPCC process, was written by climatologist Phil Jones in an email to Mann (the papers weren't excluded).

People mess up "To" and "From" attribution in normal conversation, but I'd say a reasonable person writing a strong attack on someone for major media publication would read a short email carefully, so this mistake is a negligent one. That's enough fault when defaming a private individual, but attacks on public figures require a reckless disregard for the truth, which would be difficult to show here. I think Mann is a public figure on climate issues in the US, although he might have a shot of claiming otherwise in the UK.

An interesting twist on whether the quote actually made by Jones indicates that the speaker is an unfit scientist. I'm sure Jones would disagree. Trying to exclude bad work may have been a mistake, but I don't think it sinks to a level of indicating unfitness. However, Pat Michaels clearly thinks otherwise, and estoppel might prevent him from arguing in court differently from how he argued to the world.

Final aspect of the case is damages. Pat Michaels is a never-important and long-discredited figure in climatology, so his defense would be something like "no one in climatology takes seriously what I have to say, and it doesn't really harm the plaintiff that I misinformed the general public." Cato could point to its own plunging reputation as well (some Cato hack repeated the mistake on the Cato website). These are pretty good defenses.

All in all, it's what lawyers call a colorable, non-frivolous case, but not one I'd bring. Instead, I'd send a letter to Michaels and everyone who published his mistake, telling them that they're not going to get sued but requesting a published correction. Then I'd publish the letter and get some credit for being the better man, even if that's not a difficult achievement in this case.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Ticking time bomb torture and Inglourious Basterds

Ticking time bombs are a topic again on the right, thanks to The Underpants Bomber. Could it have made sense to "harshly interrogate" the bomber after subduing him to find out if there are other bombers on other planes, they ask. Given that neither the Underpants Bomber nor the Shoe Bomber from years earlier were involved in coordinated attacks, I think their cases argue against the hypothetical reasons to torture people.

But what about 911, where there was a coordinated attack? I think the problem with the moral "dilemma" is actually making the time short enough to rule out traditional interrogation while still being able to acquire reliable information from someone who has the easy choice of lying for a few minutes. My response to this argument:
I think torture could result in accurate information, but only when there's time to corroborate the tortured person's claims and inflict more severe torture if it turns out he or she lied. Game theory has shown that repeat player games are the ones that establish a level of trust.

That's the main problem with many ticking time bomb scenarios, including the hypothetical one that didn't actually happen last Xmas - the tortured person's best strategy, if he's got useful info for the other side, is just to lie during the few minutes that he needs to lie. Soon he's in the hands of the police.
Or the bomb explodes, which is preferable to captured person and there's no way for the interrogator to know otherwise. Even if you defeated and captured Mohammed Atta on the plane he hijacked, he can deny he knows of other hijack attempts or even name wrong flights, and there's nothing you can do about it.

Ticking time bomb justifications seem to either come as a vague claims, or hypotheticals that haven't occurred in real life. I don't doubt that it's possible to come up with a dangerous hypothetical, and maybe torture would be justifiable then, but a pro-torture policy doesn't seem to have a lot of justifiable application in the real world.

The exception to this would be wartime. I finally watched Inglourious Basterds, an okay-but-not-great Tarantino World War II film. In one scene, the American soldiers fighting behind German lines have captured German soldiers and need info on what threats they face. This seems a good case of a ticking time bomb scenario, and the Americans could have set up a scenario to retaliate against an informer giving false information. I think this could happen a lot during war. The fact that wartime torture of enemy soldiers is the one area where torture is most disfavored seems meaningful to me.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Federal NEPA environmental rules to consider climate change (except they do already)

The news says Obama administration will come out soon with guidance on how climate change is to be incorporated into the National Environmental Policy Act, the main federal law on how environmental impacts are to be taken into consideration whenever the federal government takes action.

Sounds a little bigger than it is - NEPA disclosures have already considered climate impacts for years. When I was a law student in the late 1990s, we pushed for and got climate change consideration in a Forest Service NEPA document, overcoming some initial resistance. What's new (and beneficial) is formal, administrative guidance on how to handle the issue.

The news article also says this:

In a letter responding to Inhofe and Barrasso, Sutley said the act "cannot be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions," suggesting that the administration would not block projects simply because they would add carbon dioxide to the air.

I think the reporter is reading too much into that statement, which really means that NEPA will not provide substantive controls over greenhouse gases as a whole. Under NEPA, any administrative decision-maker could theoretically decide that the negative climate impacts of a project outweigh its benefits, and kill the project.

There is a more general problem, however, with NEPA and its California equivalent, CEQA. Small projects with small impacts are supposed to get only limited environmental review unless they cumulatively contribute to large impacts, in which case they're supposed to get extensive and expensive environmental review. Any honest assessment of small projects with climate impacts would determine they have a cumulatively significant impact, but it's not feasible to do massive review on every small project. I'm not sure how they're going to solve this issue.

Bonus blogging: I don't know why some people like The Caryatids, but I'd give it a B-minus at most. Some interesting ideas about what might happen in the climate-changed future, combined with some not-at-all interesting ideas about a supervolcano under Yosemite and the sun going nova, with a plot where virtually nothing but exposition happens for the first sixty pages and for many interludes afterwards.