Thursday, March 31, 2011

Congressional Republicans admit they can't handle the truth

I meant to comment on this a while back:

A group of Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives is proposing to shift funds from NASA’s climate change research coffers to the agency’s manned spaceflight program, an effort they say could preserve what they described as the agency’s core mission even as the new GOP-controlled House seeks to make good on vows to roll back federal discretionary spending this year.

It's not just moving money from the most scientifically-useful part of NASA to the least useful, although that does nicely symbolize the Republican hatred of science. Most Republican leaders admit that the planet's warming, but they usually say the case for it being anthropogenic is unproven. Trying to deny information that would provide further proof is a solid indication that they can't handle the truth. I suppose they could claim that they have definitive proof that the warming's not human-cased, and that the proof is so solid that there's no longer any need to study the subject, but that makes them all the more idiots.

I recall this happening before, and I'm sure it'll happen again. The second-level question though is why do they bother? The evidence that we're changing climate is mountainous and they ignore it, so why do they bother trying to stop still more evidence from coming in?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to fear hypocrisy

Came up with the quote above myself. I really hate the argument that you're not allowed to do something good unless you always do that good thing. Mostly lately used to say the US shouldn't be allowed to stop Qaddafi because we've not bombed Yemen's dictator. Not that we should rush in everywhere, and I even think there are reasonable arguments not to get involved in Libya, but everywhere or nowhere isn't a good argument.

We're no angels, and hypocrisy is a good argument to make if we claim to be angels, but it's not an argument for inaction.

I often see its counterpart argument, btw: someone says they should be allowed to do something wrong because other people have done something wrong previously. Land developers make this argument constantly, "people ten years ago built their homes right into the streamside habitat, therefore I should be able to as well." No.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

So why is a partitioned Libya worse than a Qaddafi-ruled one?

I'm not getting the argument behind the fear of a partitioned Libya. The alternative is more Qaddafi, more oil purchases from Qaddafi, and more weapons sales to him.

In a partition, the rebels will continue to assemble a government and maintain oil sales, while Qaddafi can't. Eventually they'll take care of him. Given that we've created a no-fly/no-armor/no-artillery zone, if the rebels can't fight off infantry at this point, then they don't have the support and drive to maintain a revolution.

As for Josh Marshall saying no genocide=no humanitarian reason to intervene, I think the rebuttal argument makes itself.

It's definitely a roll of the dice, but doing nothing isn't such a great play either. And while eastern Libya has been a hotbed of Al Qaeda recruitment in the past, a chance at a more democratic society could help there, and meanwhile we're destroying every weapon in Libya that can shoot down aircraft.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nuke power: still too safe, still too expensive, and no one's changed their mind

Stoat refers to the latest go-around on nukes following the catastrophe in Japan (also here). I don't think people are changing their minds on the overall issue, and who am I to buck that trend?

While I find it pretty murky to figure out exactly what's happening in Japan, it seems that the radiation released is still much less than Chernobyl. Maybe the radiation could get as bad as Chernobyl, maybe not, but it definitely won't result in as many lives lost. Compare that to the million people annually who die from from fine particle emissions, in large part from fossil fuels, and it's no contest. Meanwhile, Germany and China partially suspend their nuclear programs while their coal plants chug away, actions that don't help safety unless they later plan to make up for lost time.

So I'll stand by what I wrote in 2005, that nuclear power is too safe relative to fossil fuel competitors. I suppose you could argue it's worthwhile to make the worst 10% safer while making new plants less safe than otherwise planned, but that wouldn't change the analysis. I also suppose it's less safe than the industrial accidents from renewable power (don't really know the answer to that), but that's not the binary choice we have in our current system.

I tried to figure out what could change my mind on safety, and it would have to be getting a lot of Chernobyls. However, nuclear power could be ruled out with only a few Chernobyls because they have the effect of making significant land areas uninhabitable, an adverse economic effect. Nuclear power is just too expensive to be more than a minor contributor to climate solutions, unless we go along with the conservative push for giant subsidies for nukes. Maybe we need to, but that doesn't make it optimal.

One other point: Matt notices that nuclear power is only safe due to governmental regulation, and still conservatives love it.

And another: this BBC article points to a proposal to put a nuclear waste depository in the already-uninhabitable Chernobyl area. It doesn't make much sense in the thousands of years that we'd theoretically need to store it, but it does make sense for the actual century or two that's needed, and afterwards a much more advanced technological society can figure out a better solution.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Checking for next steps in House Republicans science denial

Talking Points Memo reports that none of the 31 Republicans on the House Energy Committee will admit that climate change is real and caused by people, directly repudiating both the real world and their own 2008 presidential campaign.

The more constructive side of my personality thinks they should be asked if temperatures will continue to go up in the next ten years at the rate predicted by the IPCC, then will they change their minds. I can't imagine how much trouble we'll be in if there's still serious resistance to action ten years from now, but there probably will be, so we might want to start blunting it.

The more political side suggests seeing how far we can test these geniuses. I bet many would reject an amendment declaring that CO2, methane, and other gases have globally increased in concentration and humans are responsible. A commenter also suggests testing them as to whether the earth is over 6,000 years old, which could be done by an amendment declaring that the earth is many millions of years old and therefore a study of the paleoclimate over the millions of years helps us understand modern climate.

Let's see how far they'll stick their heads in the sand. Showing how the Republicans can't acknowledge reality is a good way to start wedging them apart from any educated supporters.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Fluoridating water, or a funny thing happened on my way to backseat driving

I originally labelled this blog Backseat Driving back in 2004 because I anticipated it to be a blog where I would second-guess decisions made by politicians and other people. That worked out fine more or less until November 2010, when for some reason I was elected to the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board. Turns out that San Jose is the largest city in the US without fluoridated water supplies (in much of the city, anyway), and the seven of us directors have to decide whether we'll help or hinder the fluoridation process. So I'm pushed into the front seat for this one.

We've got some legal and economic issues to handle (it's not quite as cheap as everyone says, I want to know where the money's going to come from), but the relevant issue here is science. I read the guest post at climate blogger Coby Beck's place, The Case Against Fluoride, fairly closely a while back, especially the raucous debate in the comments. As a spectator with some, limited reading of the available information, I'd say the fluoridators seemed more persuasive than skeptics, but it wasn't the absolute demolishing that I expected.

The fluoride skeptics really hurt their cause when say fluoride doesn't prevent cavities - it's so obviously effective that people making this claim are damaging their own credibility. I'd consider it comparable to denying that the planet has warmed in the last 50 years.

The closer issue is adverse effects, and whether a substantial number of people are very slightly harmed by fluoridation, or if a small number of people are substantially harmed. The 2006 National of Sciences report doesn't condemn fluoridation, but it doesn't absolve it, either:
Bone Fractures

....Overall, there was consensus among the committee that there is scientific evidence that under certain conditions fluoride can weaken bone and increase the risk of fractures. The majority of the committee concluded that lifetime exposure to fluoride at drinking-water concentrations of 4 mg/L or higher is likely to increase fracture rates in the population, compared with exposure to 1 mg/L, particularly in some demographic subgroups that are prone to accumulate fluoride into their bones (e.g., people with renal disease)....There were few studies to assess fracture risk in populations exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L in drinking water. The best available study, from Finland, suggested an increased rate of hip fracture in populations exposed to fluoride at concentrations above 1.5 mg/L. However, this study alone is not sufficient to judge fracture risk for people exposed to fluoride at 2 mg/L. Thus, no conclusions could be drawn about fracture risk or safety at 2 mg/L....


(In California, 2 mg/L was the limit, and 0.7 is the new proposed goal. -Ed)

Neurotoxicity and Neurobehavioral Effects

Animal and human studies of fluoride have been published reporting adverse cognitive and behavioral effects. A few epidemiologic studies of Chinese populations have reported IQ deficits in children exposed to fluoride at 2.5 to 4 mg/L in drinking water. Although the studies lacked sufficient detail for the committee to fully assess their quality and relevance to U.S. populations, the consistency of the results appears significant enough to warrant additional research on the effects of fluoride on intelligence....


Endocrine Effects

The chief endocrine effects of fluoride exposures in experimental animals and in humans include decreased thyroid function, increased calcitonin activity, increased parathyroid hormone activity, secondary hyperparathyroidism, impaired glucose tolerance, and possible effects on timing of sexual maturity. Some of these effects are associated with fluoride intake that is achievable at fluoride concentrations in drinking water of 4 mg/L or less, especially for young children or for individuals with high water intake. Many of the effects could be considered subclinical effects, meaning that they are not adverse health effects. However, recent work on borderline hormonal imbalances and endocrine-disrupting chemicals indicated that adverse health effects, or increased risks for developing adverse effects, might be associated with seemingly mild imbalances or perturbations in hormone concentrations. Further research is needed to explore these possibilities....


Genotoxicity and Carcinogenicity

....Whether fluoride might be associated with bone cancer has been a subject of debate. Bone is the most plausible site for cancer associated with fluoride because of its deposition into bone and its mitogenic effects on bone cells in culture....Several epidemiologic investigations of the relation between fluoride and cancer have been performed since the 1993 evaluation, including both individual-based and ecologic studies. Several studies had significant methodological limitations that made it difficult to draw conclusions. Overall, the results are mixed, with some studies reporting a positive association and others no association.

On the basis of the committee’s collective consideration of data from humans, genotoxicity assays, and studies of mechanisms of action in cell systems (e.g., bone cells in vitro), the evidence on the potential of fluoride to initiate or promote cancers, particularly of the bone, is tentative and mixed. Assessing whether fluoride constitutes a risk factor for osteosarcoma is complicated by the rarity of the disease and the difficulty of characterizing biologic dose because of the ubiquity of population exposure to fluoride and the difficulty of acquiring bone samples in nonaffected individuals.


These were the most troubling findings, mostly about what hasn't been proven, and mostly dealing with levels that are five times what's planned for drinking water. The report expressly ignored the benefits of fluoridation. It's important to balance out potential concerns over rare, severe complications related to fluoride with the certainty that rare, severe complications can result from cavities.


The bottom line as a policy maker in my little arena is that I shouldn't try and figure out the science myself, but I should try to figure out what the scientific consensus is, figure out where the consensus doesn't yet exist, and then plug that information into everything else we have to balance.


The science seems to favor fluoridation, but it's not a slam dunk. And we still have potential policy barriers, and the overall cost issues. Figuring this all out will be interesting.


UPDATE: I'll give the anti-fluoridators credit for quickly finding their way here. Personally, I'm not going to attempt to judge the quality of their sources. I don't care what any single paper or PhD says, I want to know what the consensus says.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Beware pundits selling a new look at some bad people

Brad DeLong on political scientists not behaving well, quoting Mother Jones:

....Harvard professor Joseph Nye Jr.... sipped tea for three hours with Muammar Qaddafi. Months later, he penned an elegant description of the chat for The New Republic, reporting that Qaddafi had been interested in discussing "direct democracy." Nye noted that "there is no doubt that" the Libyan autocrat:

acts differently on the world stage today than he did in decades past. And the fact that he took so much time to discuss ideas—including soft power—with a visiting professor suggests that he is actively seeking a new strategy.

The article .... noted that Nye had gone to Libya "at the invitation of the Monitor Group, a consulting company that is helping Libya open itself to the global economy"... [but not that] he [was]... as a paid consultant of the Monitor Group.... And Franklin Foer, then the editor of the magazine, says, "If we had known that he was consulting for a firm paid by the government, we wouldn't have run the piece."...

And Nye wasn't the only one who did this stuff. I'm familiar with my friends at Burson Marsteller and at Hill & Knowlton from when I used to do something useful campaigning for Burma. Looks like this Monitor Group is another firm to watch.

I guess the lesson is to be careful when a pundit says something contrarian, about a powerful bad guy turning over a new leaf....

Friday, March 04, 2011

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Evolutionary psychology wars aren't helpful to climate denialists

Climate denialist/skeptics face a problem in trying to argue that 97% of the practitioners in the field are fundamentally wrong in accepting climate change: how likely is it that a field of science could get that screwed up? Generally, denialists don't care about whether the unlikelihood of their claim and whether it suggests they themselves are in the wrong. Instead they just say that climatologists don't understand climatology.

My question is whether this has happened before in modern science. If it hasn't, then denialists have to get us to assume pretty heroically that the scientific process has failed in a way that it's not failed before, and I think it might make us consider whether in fact, the denialists are wrong and the 97% of climatologists are right.

I should note that this isn't about science getting something wrong - that happens all the time. This is about the claim that the field of climatology is fundamentally unsound, which is the basic claim of denialists. And even if it did happen elsewhere, that doesn't mean it's happening now in climatology, but the precedent would make the claim a tiny bit less implausible.

I looked once before at whether modern science engages in conspiracy, in the far smaller group of scientists examining Jupiter's moon Europa and its ice cover, and I didn't think it was helpful to denialists.

So how about another potential example, in the field of evolutionary psychology. This area attracts a lot of controversy, possibly because amateurs try to use it to as a pop-scientific justification of whatever moral belief they advocate, possibly because its supporters sometimes overstate some of their conclusions, and possibly because biologists don't like psychologists encroaching on their turf. But is the field discredited?

The short answer is no, at least not the way that climate denialists think that 97% of climatologists are wrong. Even critics of many papers published on evolutionary psychology think the field can reach and has reached appropriate conclusions, like Jerry Coyne:

Now I don’t oppose evolutionary psychology on principle. The evolutionary source of our behavior is a fascinating topic, and I’m convinced that the genetic influences are far stronger than, say, posited by anti-determinists like Dick Lewontin, Steve Rose, and Steve Gould. Evolved adaptations are particularly likely to be found in sexual behavior, which is intimately connected with the real object of selection: the currency of reproduction. I’m far closer in my views on this topic to Steve Pinker than to Steve Gould. And there are many good studies in the field, so I don’t mean to tar the whole endeavor.

It's also worth noting that compared to climatology, evolutionary psychology is a "soft" scientific field with ethical barriers to experimentation that climatology doesn't experience. Even so, aside from the view of possibly a tiny number of critics, it's not gone as far off the rails as denialists claim has happened for climatology. The denialists are going to have to look somewhere else for a precedent.

Personally, I think evolutionary psychology is fascinating and likely to have significant insights. I think it's facetious to believe that in our psychology, which is crucial to our survival, we'd have escaped the evolutionary influences that affect every other species on the planet. Great apes are clearly smart enough to have differing individual psychologies that must have affected their survival rates over time. Getting deep and subtle insights about human evolutionary psychology will be difficult, but denying that field's validity is as about as smart as climate denialism.